• The Voice of the Child - Time to be Heard


    With the publication of the Final Report of the Voice of the Child Dispute Resolution Advisory Group in March 2015, Gemma Burden comments of some of its findings and recommendations insofar as they relate to Laceys Mediation and their mediation practice.

    The thrust behind the recommendations of the Voice of the Child Advisory Group is the promotion of Child Inclusive Dispute Resolution Practice which it defines as giving:

    'children and young people the opportunity to have a conversation (verbal, written, through play or storytelling) with professionals who are assisting their parents to make arrangements for the children's future'

    The group recommends the adoption of a non legal presumption that all children and young people aged 10 and over should be offered the opportunity to have their voices heard directly during dispute resolution processes, including mediation, if they wish. This is a recommendation endorsed by Simon Hughes, the Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties. The recommendation recognises the need for respect for a child's right to be heard, listened to and understood by the professionals who are helping their parents. This fits in with article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which provides that every child who is capable of forming a view shall have the right to express those views on matters affecting them, including the opportunity to be heard in any judicial or administrative proceedings relating to that child. The approach also fits in with the Child Arrangements Programme (CAP) which says in Practice Direction 12 B paragraph 4.4: 'children should be involved, to the extent which is appropriate given their age and level of understanding, in making arrangements that affect them'. The Children and Families Act 2014 also states that 'the court and parties should be conscious of the need to ensure that children are involved, as appropriate, in the context of their age and level of understanding in the decision making process'. Finally the recommendations tie in well with the strong views expressed by the Family Justice Young People's Board (FJYPB), and as they represent children and young people, their views must surely count for a lot. With all of the examples above, the writing is well and truly on the wall, and we cannot ignore that significant changes are afoot.

    In mediation we currently embrace the approach through Direct Consultation with Children, and all of the mediators at Laceys Mediation are trained to provide this service to the families that we serve. Currently only 1/3 of trained mediators are trained to see children as part of the mediation process, and the vast majority see on average only 10 or less children per year. At Laceys we are in the minority, both in terms of all being trained in Direct Consultation with Children, but also in terms of the number of children that we see which in general would amount to a handful of children each month across our service as a whole. We have been doing this for some time, although historically this has been dependent on the parent's wanting to make use of the service, and at times parental reluctance or concern has stood in the way. The traditional model has been one of 'child focussed mediation', whereas 'child inclusive mediation' takes this a step further.

    The Advisory Group recommend that children be included in mediation as part of the process as a whole and not just by offering one off meetings. Again, Laceys are already implementing this practice in that it has been the case for some time that parents who invite us to arrange Direct Child Consultation for their child sign up to an agreement where their children are made aware that they can contact us at any time in the future should they wish to speak to us again. We would not what to turn our backs on a child wanting to talk to us.

    Currently at Laceys, we can only arrange to see a child if both parents agree. The Advisory Group go further. They talk about Gillick competent children and young people being able to override the lack of parental consent. They also talk about the consent of just one parent being sufficient in the case of non Gillick competent children. It remains to be seen whether our professional bodies will support this recommendation. The government response has been to urge the Family Mediation Council to look into this further and we await their decision with keen interest.

    The report of the Advisory Group highlights the need for greater direct access for children and young people to information that is consistent, age appropriate and of high quality. It recommends an authoritative website and online tool be developed in collaboration with children and young people. It recognised the steps that have already been taken by the charity, Kids in the Middle, to develop a website in this way. Laceys Mediation were one of the founding partners of this charity in 2014 and remain one of its members, continuing the fundraising effort to keep this project moving forward. We are proud to have been a part of this development at such an early stage and urge all those going through a separation, or who know or work with families affected by a separation, to visit the website to find out more (www.kidsinthemiddle.org.uk).

    We await with enthusiasm, the suggestion that a kite mark be developed for services that demonstrate that they offer a quality, child inclusive approach to families experiencing parental separation. This could be much like the Help and Support for Separated Families (HSSF) kite mark, of which Laceys Mediation are holders and which was also mentioned in the Advisory Group's report. The HSSF Mark is awarded to organisations that demonstrate that they meet a set of standards and show that the service promotes collaboration and puts children at the heart of the separation process. Only 43 organisations nationally have been awarded the Mark directly, of which one is Laceys Mediation.

    The benefits of these recommendations have been well researched over many years. The message from such research remains consistent. Children and Young people seek clear information about what is going to happen during their parent's separation and beyond, and they want to be involved in that decision making process in some way. Australia has lead the way in this research and found the child inclusive approach to mediation to carry greater benefits to that child focussed approach. Children demonstrated lower anxiety, fewer fears and fewer depressive symptoms. Children appreciated the safe process to express their views and contribute to outcomes. The research reported better parent-child relationships after the parental separation. These findings certainly mirror the feedback that we receive from many parents and children that we have helped over the years.

    There will remain sceptics of this approach. Parents and professionals alike will have concerns. Many of these concerns come about through incorrect assumptions or lack of knowledge about what the child inclusive approach will mean. Parental reluctance might be as a result of their sensitivity to the privacy of their parenting, or simply the fact that they struggle to deal with yet another decision at a time when they are already stressed and confused. Giving children a voice in mediation is not about conducting forensic interviews or taking evidence. It is not about giving children the power to make decisions. It does not even necessarily have to involve ascertaining their wishes or feelings in any formal way, although this can often become apparent during the course of the discussions that we have. Instead, it is about helping the child understand more, helping them gain confidence that what they think matters, letting them tell their story without fear of upsetting their loved ones, and reassuring them that they have been heard and understood.

    The focus of those in favour of the child inclusive approach will be to listen to children and young people themselves. Many feel unable to talk to those directly involved in their parent's separation. Their parents may be too distressed themselves to provide children with the support they need. Children can make considerable efforts to hide their own worries from their family at this time, not wanting to add to an already difficult time. They may feel too embarrassed to talk to their school friends or teachers, seeing school as the one place where they can instead switch off from what is going on ay home. Without an alternative avenue to seek help and information, children can become isolated and worried. In 2012/13 Childline reported a 122% increase in children and young people contacting them about their parent's separation.

    We find the work that we do with children thoroughly rewarding. We feel we can help make a difference. Generally children leave meetings with us feeling more important (their opinion matters), and less alone (they aren't the only children going through this). Sometimes their views about future arrangements can help their parents reach a solution that works well for everyone. At other times they simply want their parents to decide and don't want to make any decisions at all themselves, but that in itself is important feedback for parents - in other words 'Mum and Dad, just get on with it, we'll be happy with whatever, just so long as you two can be nice to each other'. The times we hear that message loud a clear!