In Britain, advocacy for children was given a statutory basis for the first time in 2002, so it is a relatively new field in which most advocates have learned their skills through practice. In this book Christine Oliver and Jane Dalrymple draw together the available research and explore how the different facets of advocacy are evolving, looking at the various definitions, policy and practices, as well as children’s and advocates’ experiences of the process.
The thread running through this book is the difficulty which vulnerable children can have in expressing their needs, fears and hopes, even with the help of an advocate. As a skill largely acquired on the job, advocacy is a developing art, and the case studies in this book point to some key themes and skills.
A major theme, which should echo through services far more widely than in advocacy alone, is the need for those working with vulnerable people to recognise and understand the workings of power relations, how these can affect a person’s participation in a process, and, most importantly, how to work with these dynamics in order to make the person’s voice heard.
An advocate’s independence is another important theme. Various chapters outline the full gamut of this need for independence—independence from the services involved with the child or vulnerable adult, independence from the child’s family in order to give a voice to the child, and, critically, independence from one’s own view of what may be in a person’s best interest. An advocate’s role is to ensure that the person’s voice or view is heard, not to mould those views.
The book examines the efficacy of the various forms of advocacy, from independent advocacy (often performed by services such as guardians ad litem), to less independent advocates—perhaps those employed by services working with the children—to informal advocates such as a family member—a lastly to self-advocacy.
There is a chapter dealing with advocacy for children or adults with disabilities, including those without speech. The authors name the particular problems which can arise in this situation, such as sifting out the true wishes of the advocate’s client from the often well-meaning wishes or needs of those interpreting or advising the advocate. The possibility of a person with a disability being unused to making choices, or agreeing readily to other people’s choices, is also examined. A real immersion in the person’s life, in different settings, over a period of months or years, was described in an example of good practice. The possible tension between dealing with the wishes of the child or adult with a disability and the needs of the carer was also outlined.
The book is laid out in chapters dealing with the full range of experiences in advocacy, from the historical perspective to views on the impact of advocacy. Interestingly, many chapters contain diametrically opposed views on advocacy, including views on its impact. These include the view that children valued being listened to, even if they often did not achieve their desired outcome.
Approximately 35% of advocates reported achieving decisions in a child’s favour, while half felt that policy changes had occurred because of the intervention of advocates. Others pointed to advocacy as being a spotlight on social work practice. At the other end of the scale, some professionals expressed concern about the negative impact of advocacy on the lives of children, possibly resulting in decisions being taken which opened them to risk, as a result of children’s views being taken too much into account.
Developing Advocacy for Children and Young People is a thorough exploration of attitudes and practices. It invites professionals to examine their beliefs about what may be done in other people’s best interests. The questions it asks apply far more widely than just in the field of advocacy. Books such as this should be required reading for all whose professional views can impact on the lives of others who may be vulnerable.