Handley, G. (2008) Giving young children a voice in legal proceedings. Paper presented to: XVIIth International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect, Hong Kong, 7 - 10 September 2008.
In order to protect children from abuse, child protection professionals may need to engage in legal proceedings. In England this is usually through the Family Court system. Here, in most cases, there is a legal requirement for children’s wishes and feelings to be taken into account when a family court makes decisions about a child’s future. Earlier research, including some by the current researchers, has indicated that if facilitated, children between the ages 2-7 years-old can, with varying degrees of competence, express their wishes and feelings. This project therefore explored how far relevant professionals seek the views of younger children directly rather than depending on their caregivers’ views. The research also examined how far key professionals used their nderstanding of child development when deciding whether or not to engage young children directly. The design was a questionnaire-based survey, sampling those professionals who have a key role in the process, namely family court advisers and local authority social workers. It was found that some of the key professionals directly sought to ascertain the wishes and feelings of children as young as four years old, but others felt unable to do so until children were older than seven years. The use of any theoretical understanding of children’s cognitive development was limited and might account for the variation in a professionals’ willingness to engage directly with younger children. It was concluded that a greater understanding of children’s cognitive development might enhance professionals’ willingness to, and skills in, directly ascertaining the desires of younger children. This, in turn, has implications for the training of child protection professionals