Caroline Leeson


The provision of services for looked after children is an arena, like no other, where agents of the state, rather than parents or the children themselves are making decisions about children's lives. Such decisions include where and with whom looked after children live, what school they attend and the regularity and quality of their contact with their families and friends. The extent to which looked after children are involved in these decision-making processes appears to depend on the assumptions and perceptions of social work practitioners about the ability of children to participate. These assumptions are usually based on age-related concepts of competence and thus younger looked after children, aged eight or under, are unlikely to be involved and therefore have limited opportunity to participate in making decisions about their own lives. Using collaborative methods of engagement including narratives, games and creative activities, fourteen looked after children aged four to thirteen were invited to reflect upon their experiences of participation in formal decision-making processes, identifying key issues of concern as well as possible areas for improvement and/or development. Social work practitioners were also invited to identify areas of concern from their perspective and suggestions for the improvement of practice of working with looked after children. On analysing the results of the research, it became clear that although age related concepts of competence were important in determining whether looked 4 after children would be involved in decision-making, the key determinant was the quality of the relationship between a child and his/her social worker. In turn, the quality of the relationship was seriously affected by the policies and procedures, priorities, and culture of the social work agency. Agencies that placed a high priority on meaningful relationships between practitioners and looked after children were more willing to encourage children's participation in decision-making, thereby promoting resilience and the development of positive memories of autonomy and engagement. The research concludes that a model that places the child at the centre of service provision is inadequate in that it does not fully recognise the critical importance of the close, intimate relationship between looked after children and social workers. A new model is proposed that emphasises the critical importance of a synergy involving enhanced relationships between looked after children and social workers, a facilitative context of permitting circumstances and the fostering of positive memories of effective participation in decision-making.

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