Young peoples’ participation is a right, not a privilege

Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Australian young people should be assured the right to express their views freely in all matters that affect them, their views being given due weight, in accordance with their age and maturity. Yet in a recent survey of 143 children and young people in residential care in NSW, only 48% said they usually get a chance to have a say and usually feel listened to; 25% said they don’t usually get to have a say and don’t usually feel listened to (NSW Department of Communities and Justice, 2019).

Youth participation is broadly defined as ‘a process of involving young people in the institutions and decisions that affect their lives’ (Checkoway, 2011). Young people have the right to participate in informal, day-to-day decision making, as well as more formal participation like court matters and administrative decisions, including care orders and family law, case planning and review and placement decisions (Lansdown, 2011). This includes decisions about:

  • where they go to school,
  • how often they have contact with siblings and other members of their families,
  • who is involved in their care,
  • the design of services and programs, through to
  • the governance of organisations.

Young people also have a right to participate in decisions about organisational and government policies, from child protection and out-of-home care (OOHC) to transport, education, immigration, and health (Bessell, 2015; Lansdown, 2011). In reality, however, young peoples’ participation is too easily and too often sidelined in a world that privileges adult voices and institutions.

Where are young peoples’ voices in residential care?

“There is a reason they [young people] are running away. They have tried to have their voices, opinion heard and weren’t so they remove themselves from the situation.”

This quote is from a young person interviewed in a series of workshops exploring 11 young people’s experiences of residential care, including police contact (Queensland Child and Famliy Commission, 2018, p. 14). For many young people in residential care, participation is limited by the stigma of being in OOHC, and by court orders, policies, plans, and practices that constrain their freedoms, voice, and opportunities. They share common experiences of not being listened to, not being informed, not being asked their opinions, and this can make participating when they are invited, a complex challenge.

For many young people in residential care, participation is limited by the stigma of being in OOHC, and by court orders, policies, plans and practices that constrain their freedoms, voice, and opportunities. They share common experiences of not being listened to, not being informed, not being asked their opinions, and this can make participating when they are invited, a complex challenge.

What gets in the way of young people’s participation?

“They never warn you until the day you are leaving. On the day you leave, they notify you in the morning when they wake you up; they tell you, ‘Get your backpack ready since you are going there later’ ” (Balsells, Fuentes-Peláez, & Pastor, 2017).

According to many children and young people, they are regularly kept in the dark about the reasons for their removal and are rarely given time to prepare or consider their preferences. This lack of information and time is common throughout young people’s care experience: placements change, entering residential care, starting new schools, changes in family contact and health treatment.

Young people’s participation in care and case planning meetings is prevented when workers hold meetings without them, but also when they aren’t given adequate time, information and support to participate. For Aboriginal young people, cultural plans are often not completed or completed without adequate involvement of kin and community members (Davis, 2019). Young people with disability are often excluded through inattention to their communication styles and needs (Franklin & Goff, 2019). To ‘enter in’ to decision-making processes, young people need to know their rights and to trust that their views will be taken seriously.

Organisations contribute to these barriers through high caseloads and staff turnover, attitudes that belittle young people or devalue their involvement, ritualistic adherence to bureaucratic processes (red tape), culturally unsafe practice, and a lack of therapeutic support for young people to develop their knowledge and skills to participate (Commission for Children and Young People, 2019; Davis, 2019). Use of police for removal to OOHC, policing approaches to young people ‘absconding’ from care, and ‘lockdown’ approaches to residential care security all contribute to young people’s disengagement and lack of trust in participation processes (QFCC, 2018).

At a policy level, the exclusion of young people from systemic decisions that affect their lives can take the form of tokenistic ‘consultation’, such as:

  • consulting with them when decisions have already been made,
  • exclusion of young people in OOHC, Aboriginal young people and young people with disability,
  • not giving feedback or not reporting back to them, and
  • undermining young people’s ideas for change as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘blue sky’.

To address the barriers, we must be on young people’s side: demonstrating love and friendship, treating young people as equals with rights (even if they don’t name these rights), and working with them towards a shared purpose (Thomas, 2012).

So, what does youth participation look like?

There are various models for understanding young people’s participation. Here we break it down to four key concepts:

  1. Access to inclusive information: participation involves all young people knowing their rights and entitlements, understanding the possible consequences of decisions, and having access to information about themselves, their family, and about the residential care system. It means information should be made available in accessible formats, in culturally safe and inclusive language, to all young people, and that adults should work to make sure young people can access and understand information.
  2. Safety to form views: young people need access to safe spaces, and time to consider their options and preferences. Creating safety involves trusting and culturally safe relationships, accessible and inclusive communication including the use of interpreters and communication devices, and supporting them to identify their views over time.
  3. Having a say: this includes being able to express views in different forums, giving feedback to people involved in decision making about their lives, and being able to make complaints. It might include small expressions of views, like the timing of meetings or partial participation, expressions about goals, hopes and dreams, or expression of need for the company of a trusted person or animal. Expressing ‘voice’ is empowering where it is an equal voice, when there is support to express views in playful and creative ways, where it is recognised in cultural protocols, and where young people feel they can have a say about who is involved in decision making about their lives. Young people also need to know their views are going to those in charge: either directly to decision makers, or through a trusted and accountable medium.
  4. Listening and taking seriously: giving weight to young people’s views in decision making shifts the focus of participation to the obligations of practitioners, organisations and policymakers. Activities that focus on young people’s voice and participation, without giving weight to their views, runs the risk of tokenism that can reinforce their exclusion. It involves taking young people seriously, providing feedback, being accountable for delivering on commitments and responding to requests, and being transparent about how their views make an impact on decisions (Moore, 2017). It is a fundamental shift in power relations, placing young people at the centre of decision making in their lives, and moving the locus of decision making into their spaces and places.

Where to from here?

There’s a long way to go to realise young people’s rights to participate. But building their capabilities to participate can be part of everyday practice through building safe environments in trusting and respectful relationships. Enabling young people’s participation starts with recognising their existing agency; the efforts and activities they already undertake to form and express their views, and to be heard in decisions that affect their lives. Practitioners in residential care can enable participation through their everyday practices:

  • listening to young people
  • ensuring access to information about their rights
  • building their capacities to participate
  • addressing barriers to participation
  • delivering on commitments to young people
  • making processes transparent, and
  • giving clear feedback to young people.

For more on how you can enable young people’s participation, look out for upcoming blogs ‘10 practices for enabling young people’s participation’, and ‘Involving young people in programs and organisations’.

Young people who are empowered to participate on an individual level are more likely to participate in organisational and policy-level processes (Sinclair, Vieira, & Zufelt, 2019). In these processes, they feel respected when decision-makers show up to hear them, and engage in program design and policy making collaboratively over time. Processes like co-production and co-design, within a context of social accountability to them, offer the most effective, meaningful and sustainable methods for participatory decision making (Tisdall, 2017).

Understanding that young people’s participation is a right, that requires us to ensure the free expression of their views and give weight to their views, is the place to start. It’s something we can all contribute to in everyday interactions with young people, and when it happens, the benefits to them and to the organisations that serve them are immeasurable.

Interested to learn more about young people’s participation in residential care? Check out our latest Research Briefing: Enabling Young People’s Participation in Residential Care Decision Making.

Meaghan Vosz
Researcher, Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care


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United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. Convention on the Rights of the Child. , Pub. L. No. General Assembly resolution 44/25 (1989).