Keeping Children’s Voices at the Center of Child Welfare Work
The 7-year-old boy would not stop moving. He leaped from couch to chair, then somersaulted across the rug and back again like a circus performer—laughing while showing off his skills. I smiled, aware of how much I enjoyed working with children but also clear that my task was going to be challenging! I was a social worker with an organization in Massachusetts that provided intensive services to families for whom there were concerns of abuse and neglect. Much of my work would be with his parents, but my task this day was to find a way to help the boy contribute his voice to the process—to share his point of view on events and his ideas for what would help him feel safe going forward.
Helping children become part of this process is important work. Child welfare authorities in the United States receive approximately 3.6 million referrals each year (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2010). Once these reports are received, child welfare professionals find a delicate balance in their work with families: creating enough of a partnership to gather information, make good assessments, and begin a change process—all while staying rigorous and open to the idea that something serious and harmful may be happening.
Children can be and need to be full participants in this work, and it takes time to interview children well. Gaining a child’s trust is not a simple matter. A worker must pay attention to the child’s developmental stage, his or her unique set of rules or norms for connecting, and the torn loyalties that almost always exist in these situations. I have interviewed children in all sorts of places and ways in order to help build trust and create relationships: while playing Xbox and basketball, driving in my car, at a pizza place, under a dining room table, and more. Some children have responded best to direct questions; others have needed to tell stories or draw pictures. No two conversations I have had with children were alike.
Nicki Weld, a social worker from New Zealand, along with her colleague Maggie Greening, created a process that helps (Weld, 2009). Called “The Three Houses,” it is a structure for conversation that helps families and professionals collaborate in assessment and planning. It is also a particularly lovely and effective way to engage children. The process simply asks the child to draw three houses: a house of “worries” (everything going on in the child’s life that concerns or worries the child); a house of “working well” (everything going on in the child’s life that makes the child feel safe, strong, or protected); and a house of “hopes” (everything the child wishes was happening instead of what has been named in the house of worries).
I have introduced The Three Houses and similar techniques to social workers across North America and seen the excitement this approach brings. This process gives the child a clear way to participate and provides professionals with critical information. Whenever appropriate, these drawings can be shared with parents and extended family and are a powerful tool in helping them see the situation from the child’s perspective. Additionally, by ensuring children’s voices stay centered in the work, assessments such as those found in the Structured Decision Making® (SDM) system are more complete, collaborative, and targeted toward behaviors that really need to change. Parents feel like this process is truly about their children and their family. Children feel heard and see adults talking and taking action about issues that are important to them.
When I interviewed this particular 7-year-old, I had not yet heard of The Three Houses; but I did do something similar. I took out a three-foot piece of paper and stretched it across the floor to make it novel and appealing. On the paper I drew a scale with 0 on the bottom, 5 in the middle, and 10 at the top. I told him, “Ten is all the times and places you feel good, strong, and safe; zero is when and where you feel scared, worried, or hurt; and five is in the middle.” I took out markers, stamps, and stickers to engage him. I asked him where on the scale he was right then, where he had been before, and where he would like himself and his family to be. Soon, his gymnastics subsided and we were sitting together, talking and drawing. I was learning about him and his world. A lot of work was ahead of us, but we were off to a good start.
Philip Decter is an Associate Director at NCCD.
US Department of Health and Human Services. (2010). Child maltreatment. Washington DC. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/resource/child-maltreatment-2010
Weld, N. (2009). Making sure children get ‘HELD’ – ideas and resources to help workers place hope, empathy, love, and dignity at the heart of child protection and support. Dorset, UK: Russell House Publishing Ltd.