The Leicester & Leicestershire Family Justice Board prides itself on the quality of our annual training conferences – or Family Justice Days – organised by our Education Sub-committee. 2017 has been no exception.
Entitled “Can you hear us? Older children in the family justice system” the conference was a sellout, with delegates representing all areas; judiciary, lawyers and social work practitioners.
HHJ Jane George opened the conference with a welcome to all delegates and our eminent speakers. She said that everyone who attended had the same aim: to improve our collective ability to achieve the best outcomes for the children and young people we deal with. She said we all needed to reflect when it comes to older children: do we hear their voices? Do we make enough effort? Do we really listen to them?
HHJ George then introduced this year’s keynote speaker. Frances Oldham QC has had a stellar career at the bar and beyond, but is perhaps now best-known for recently chairing the independent inquiry into child abuse within the Jersey care system. Fran’s fascinating keynote address focussed on the enormous task she and her panel had in undertaking the inquiry, and how essential she believed it was to learn lessons for the future. Her first decision as chair was to remove the word “historic” from the title of the inquiry. She cautioned against the all-too-familiar attitude – which in recent times seems to have become a running theme across many institutions, regions and organisations – that “things were bad back then but they are ok now”. She was clear that there were still serious problems inherent in the care system in Jersey at the time of her inquiry in 2014, and that is the case in many areas of the country. Her focus was on making sure that she had heard the voices of everyone possible, including children currently in care, and that those voices had deliberately been replicated in her report. She quoted a very moving poem entitled “Listen” – written by a 14 year old and included in the report. The poem’s message certainly resonated with those in the audience. One method which she used to obtain the views of young people still within the care system was to ask them to write short messages on post-it notes about what they believed could be done to improve the current system. She had found their opinions so powerful she had photocopied the post-it notes and kept them with her. The clear message was one of the need to listen, communicate and understand, at all times. Fran then helpfully took us through the findings and recommendations of the inquiry report, lessons which could be applied to so much of our own work.
After coffee, we heard from Steve Baguley, from the National Working Group CSE Response Unit. The conference delegates are now very familiar with the nature of child sexual exploitation and the procedures and mechanisms to attempt to combat it, in all its forms; however Steve certainly opened our eyes to new ways of thinking and possible creative approaches to tackling the problem. We were reminded of the power of language and how language – not only that which we use ourselves, but also that to which we are constantly exposed within the media and social discourse – shapes our views of children and young people, and therefore affects the way we behave and react to them. We watched the powerful Waltham Forest video about hearing a child’s voice, which leaves on the message “Negative attitudes lead to systematic failures to protect us”. Steve cautioned against the inappropriate use of the term “resilience”; there is a tendency for professionals to believe that children are strong, resilient and therefore “over it” following abuse. They are not over it. We must remember that and find ways to hear the voices of those children even if they are not openly telling us how they are feeling. Steve commended the use of mental health assessments at the time of receiving a child into care, and the need for all practitioners to have an understanding of the impact of trauma and the development of the adolescent brain (a message reinforced later by Dr Liz Gillett). He recommended all delegates to read the Jenny Pearce Social Model of Abused Consent to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms by which the child has been abused and the reasons behind it. Finally he took the delegates through a number of different legislative tools which can be used to prevent and disrupt CSE and reminded us that trafficking legislation can be extremely useful.
The delegates then broke out into workshop groups. We had three fantastic workshops this year. The first was presented by a number of members and former members of the Leicestershire County Council Children in Care Council, supported by Leicestershire’s Children’s Rights Officers and staff from the Corporate Parenting Team. The presentation focussed on the fantastic work of the CIC Council and the experiences of those children, in particular how (or whether at all) they felt that their voices had been heard within the court process. We also heard from care leavers about their experiences of moving on to adulthood and independence, and the lessons that must be learned to ensure that this transition is as successful as possible. The sadly overwhelming message from the experiences of the speakers was one of inconsistency. The young people could not understand why some had been able to have their own solicitor at court, while others had not; why some felt they had a very good relationship with their Children’s Guardian, while others had barely met theirs; why some had the opportunity to speak to the Judge directly about their feelings about the case, while others had never even been told that this was an option. It was a wake-up call to all those listening; we can and must do better.
The second workshop was a fascinating presentation by Dr Liz Gillett about the nature of the adolescent brain, and the reasons why adolescent children (and adults – adolescence runs to 25) react and behave the way they do. She also explained the impact of trauma and neglect at various stages of development and how this can prevent the development of adult functioning later in life. She explained that research in this area is changing all the time and that we now have more tools at our fingertips to be able to work with young people in a different way. She was hopeful that this will start to be implemented. Those listeners who have become jaded over the years by experience of failing public services were perhaps less so.
The final workshop was run by Dawn Knighton, an independent social work assessor familiar with all those who practice in Leicester. She spoke about the particular considerations which need to be taken into account when assessing older children. She reminded us of the need to hear their voice, but that ultimately a best interests decision must be made. She gave the delegates extremely helpful advice as to the proper approach when undertaking such assessments.
Later in the afternoon we heard from our final speaker of the day, William Baldet, co-ordinator of the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy for Leicestershire. His absorbing (and sometimes harrowing) address explained the nature of – and need for – the Prevent strategy and the Channel programme. He took the audience through the types of extremist ideology which fuel terrorism in the UK and the central themes which motivate people to begin to contemplate taking terrorist action. He explained how organisations and networks identify and prey on those who may be vulnerable to idealist grooming; a safeguarding issue for young people in the same league as any others, for example CSE and gang violence. Will highlighted the dangers of propaganda; not only overt and obviously violent propaganda, but the more subtle use of sites like Facebook to undermine opinion and change the face of public discourse by a drip-drip effect over time, thereby normalising certain discriminatory attitudes. Finally he explained the routes to intervention through the Prevent strategy.
HHJ George concluded the day with thanks to the organisers and to draw the raffle. The raffle this year was organised by Dodds Solicitors in support of Soft Touch Arts, a Leicester charity which uses arts, media and music to make positive changes for disadvantaged young people. We raised £706 so thank you to all who contributed.
We would like to thank HHJ George and all those involved in the planning and organisation of this year’s event: Martin Kingerley, Ben Mansfield, Fiona Gingell, Mandy McCrory, Della Phillips, Margaret Robinson, Lynne Nelson, Jennifer McNeil, Gill Graham and of course (as ever) Louise King and Justine Blackwell of HMCTS, who go above and beyond the call of duty on our behalf every year. We would also like to give special thanks to Leicester City Council for the use of the fabulous City Hall venue, which all agreed was ideal for our purposes.
The Family Justice Day was both incredibly informative, as ever. Please remember to complete your feedback forms and we looks forward to seeing you all next year.