Advocacy: Giving Kids a Voice

It’s been a couple of months since I promised to write about my new job, and in that time I’ve made notes but haven’t made enough time to sit down and write them up into something somewhat coherent.

This here, is that: some semi-coherent ramblings about one aspect of my job – the most time consuming, the most emotionally consuming, and the most rewarding – one I think you will find very interesting.

I’m looking forward to writing more – about youth clubs, one-to-one support, Duke of Edinburgh, and much more – but for the moment, I ask that you enjoy this little ditty on advocacy.


Like I said, the most time consuming, the most emotionally consuming, and the most rewarding part of my job is providing advocacy.

The word advocacy might conjure an image of a slick lawyer: the kind to slam down a suitcase to a dull echo in a wooden-walled courtroom, arguing passionately and persuasively the case of their client who sits behind them, wringing their hands. 

The kind of advocacy I provide is in a setting less august and in a getup less flashy – nothing wrong with sandals! – but the situation is no less serious and sees its fair share of drama. 

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says children have the right to a say in decisions being made that affect them, and the right for that say to be listened to. 

We are fortunate enough to live in the sort of society that takes this right seriously, and tries to honour it when decisions are made that affect children.  

What I have been involved in is providing advocacy for young people at child protection conferences; speaking on behalf of young people at meetings determining whether they are at risk of serious harm, be it physical, emotional, sexual or neglect. 

These are meetings held between lots of the adults in the life of children – like parents, carers, social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses, police, all sorts – but the children themselves are rarely if ever present. 

In this room will sit professionals and family members discussing a child, or children, and issues that directly affect them – in good faith and with the best intentions – but that conversation is had in their absence.

That is where advocacy comes in.

Advocacy offers to children an opportunity to have their voice heard in this process, to have their say.

No suitcase slams. No embellishments. Just restating what the young person has said, in their own words.

In five months on the job, I have been to enough child protection conferences to see just how important it can be to have the child’s voice heard in a room full of professionals, of police, of social workers, of doctors, of nurses.

Respect the professionals’ opinions and respect the child’s voice

This is no side-swipe against professionals. 

I recognise how unlikely and unique it is that a society, when concerned about the wellbeing of a child, can gather a roomful of busy professionals with involvement in that young person’s life and listen to their opinions on that child’s wellbeing and safety, and how best to move forward. 

Even more unique and less likely: we live in our society that ensures the voice of a young person is heard in such a roomful of well-meaning professionals.

Ultimately, in a child protection conference, the outcome can be as serious and as life-changing as a young person being removed from their parents into care, or vice versa. 

If that decision is made without the voice of the young person, it could be made in error. When the the risk being run in a bad decision is physical or emotional or sexual abuse, there can be no margin for error.

That’s why advocacy can be so important.

Speaking to the child

I need to talk to the child and then talk on their behalf. 

There are other bits hiding around those two steps – like speaking to the social worker, speaking to the parents, obtaining consent, organising meetings at home or school or wherever, establishing rapport with the child, and so on – but those two steps form the crux of the process.

Chirping to young people is my favourite part of youth work in general, and with advocacy it is at its most intense; more difficult and more rewarding. 

Difficult because the child has had umpteen professionals flit in and out of their life in the last few days and weeks, due to the unpleasant ongoings in their life. The last thing a child might want is yet another unfamiliar adult asking them questions about their private life and their family and their feelings. 

From my standpoint, it is imperative to make clear from the outset, to the young person and the parent or carer: I am not the States, I am not a social worker, I am not the police. I would hardly consider myself a professional, either! I have no influence or power over you or your life. I am not a threat.

I am simply here to find out what you think, and what you want to say in this upcoming meeting, and then with your permission, say it for you. 

That’s a hard thing to word to kids, and sometimes isn’t worth trying to put into words.

As long as it is communicated somehow, it makes establishing rapport that much easier. 

Some encounters with young people

One of the homes I arrive at, the boy with whom I am supposed to be speaking stands shyly behind his Mum, pointing a pretend-gun at me. We’ll call him Billy.

Billy pretend-fires his pretend-gun at me. I melodramatically clutch my chest, as if I have been shot, and stagger into the doorframe, making him giggle. 

As I walk into the front room with Billy, and Mum goes into the kitchen to let us talk, I zip into a combat stance and make a karate noise, “Hey-aaaah!”

Kids are like puppies, you just make a movement and they are in play mode.

After a swift play-fight and lots of giggling, we sit down to talk. 

Generally, I use the Three Houses Model when I speak to kids for advocacy work.

We draw three houses, one of happy things, one of worries, one of hopes and dreams.

This tells me what’s going well, what’s not going so well, and what they want in the future.

If anything, it acts as an opener and prompt for conversation. Questioning is intense, so starting a conversation around a non-verbal medium like drawing often works better. 

Billy draws each of his houses, containing innocent childlike things like a bike, a video-game console, a neighbourhood bully, and less innocent childlike things, like his Mum’s abusive ex-partner.

We punctuate the conversation with a wrestle or two, to keep the mood light, though we speak frankly. We end on a lighter note, with his house of hopes and dreams.

Generally, I steer the younger ones that way, to finish on a lighter note. Start with a house full of happy things, then of worries, then hopes and dreams, ending things chirpily.

One of the young’uns I spoke with said they didn’t want to speak about their dreams, because they are always bad. Mean people in their dreams, always fighting (a domestic abuse case, too).

I met that young one’s sibling separately, at a family home, or more appropriately, family mansion. (Admittedly, mostly States houses I’ve entered, but there are plenty of privately owned homes in the mix, too. Money doesn’t mean you are better off when it comes to some aspects of life – arguably, more important things, I would say.)

So, this young one’s sibling, a little girl, Milly, came outside the mansion to meet me, despite being very shy, bless her heart. Whilst I was meeting and greeting her carer, Milly stroked one of their dogs. We then went into the front room where Milly and I could speak one-to-one, the dogs tapping behind us excitedly. 

The two dogs leap up onto the sofa beside me, all excited and playful. One of the doggos starts sniffing and licking me. I’m ticklish, mortifyingly so, instantly wilting under the slobbery assault, writhing with laughter, as the other doggo joins in the dog-pile. 

As I push the dogs off me and sit up, dishevelled and red from laughter, the girl is watching me with an expression I will never forget; perplexed amusement across her little face. For some reason, barriers fell, and she saw me no longer as an adult or a threat. 

She was quiet, Milly, but the few things she said were positive, her biggest worry being her brother breaking her iPad. I thought, has she has been coached to say these things and not other less positive things? Or has she suppressed traumatising events, and my prying into her private life could potentially re-traumatise her?

In this instance, I did pry, and she still said only sweet things, bless her heart, quite genuinely.

Kids are so sweet and innocent, it defies belief that people purposefully harm them. 

Another girl I met, Anna – brilliantly smart for her age, wanting to spell every long word she used and write out everything independently – she said only sweet things, too. 

When we moved on to her house of worries, Anna said, “This house will be very small, because I don’t have many worries.” Anna’s worries were for her pets and hurting herself because she was so clumsy. She ran into a table on her way out, bless her. The first thing in her house of hopes and dreams was a pet unicorn. 

One young person for whom I advocated attended the child protection conference in person. Not unprecedented, but rare and brave, as a young teenager. I had spoken to them at length prior to the conference, a frank and upsetting hour-long conversation. 

Although they were not shy and had plenty of things they wanted to say, there was no way they could speak confidently in such a setting, with everyone there from the police to school to doctor to social services and so on.

After asking permission, I spoke on their behalf, relating our conversation and their life experiences. It gave context and realness to the sometimes drier professional contributions made, and was crucial to the conference.  

I cannot imagine some of the children I have tried to interview appearing in-person at a child protection conference.

One of the children I was supposed to interview, Jasper, began climbing on top of me within seconds of meeting me. The Step-Dad, busy changing Jasper’s newborn sibling’s nappy, was telling Jasper to get off me; all the while I am in a conversation with Mum about the upcoming conference. 

Whilst interviewing the eldest sibling, I had to send Jasper out of the room, wrecking-ball of youth, afterwards knocking on the door shouting, “Let me in! Hey! It’s me! It’s Jasper! Let me in!” 

If you try to interview younger than 5 or 6 years old, you are likely to get more in the way of snot and scribbles than pictures and answers. Adorable, trying, and still quite worthwhile, in my opinion. It can be informative, just not in the same way as a wordy exchange is.

I didn’t try to interview Jasper one-to-one. I just had him hanging off my neck, banging outside the door, or rifling through my pencil-case. 

It’s important to know when to leave young, happy, innocent minds be young, happy and innocent. 

At the end of the three houses exercise, I always ask the children if they want me to say anything on their behalf at the upcoming meeting, if they are mature enough to have a clue about the adult goings-on. 

I asked this of Anna, whom I mentioned above, the little girl who wanted a pet unicorn. 

“Is there anything you want me to say at this meeting?”

She said no. 

I told her she can say whatever she wants, anything she wants. 

The little girl replied, “I don’t know why, but I want to be a cupcake.” 

What a pleasure that was to say at a conference. 

2 thoughts on “Advocacy: Giving Kids a Voice

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