In the UK, the delivery of public services for the health and well-being of children involves a range of providers, but with an absence of effective coordination or cooperation frameworks. In particular situations this may not lead to difficulties as the professionals involved are able to foster effective working relationships among themselves. However, the overall situation is too often a story of a lack of cooperation or absence of integrated approaches leading to detrimental outcomes for the child.
The high profile cases of child deaths while in care, or being monitored by public services are well known. The official reviews which follow each tragedy make clear that a lack of integrated working among practitioners was a contributing factor. For example, the 1974 Maria Cromwell inquiry found the primary failing to be poor communication and interaction among the relevant agencies. The death of Jasmine Beckford in the 1980s provided evidence of a continuing problem of professionals not sharing information and a lack of sufficient attention given to the needs and interests of the child. The Laming Report following the death of Victoria Climbié in early 2000 found a lack of interagency communication, professionals not working together or taking responsibility for their actions, a low priority given by professionals to actually protecting the child.
Of course the reasons for the failings in integrated working practices in particular situations vary immensely due to the complicated landscapes which exist. But clearly there is a need for the creation of a foundational framework for the delivery of integrated services where the focus is first and foremost on the child.
A human rights framework for integrated children services will go a long way in addressing the concerns and criticisms regarding integrated working practices. Most importantly a human rights based approach to integrated working will help to ensure that service delivery is grounded in the actual lived experiences of children. A human rights based approach will ensure children are treated as dignified individuals who possess their own rights which are to be respected by parents and professionals alike and, where appropriate, ensure the child is part of the processes impacting upon them. By structuring integrated working, in both principle and practice, upon the human rights of children, this will bring children to the centre of critical processes impacting upon their lives, compelling service providers to work together more effectively for supporting the child’s future.
Suggesting that human rights should be at the centre of integrated working is not a radical position. Education, health care, social services are all public services concerned with human welfare, and therefore, human concerns are at the centre of practice, or at least they should be. However, as the recent Munro Review discusses, the practical concerns and considerations in the delivery of children services are influenced by varying policy directions, an emphasis on process over substance, and professional considerations overriding the actual needs and desires of the child. Through advocating a human rights approach to integrated working it is hoped that professional priorities and bureaucratisation will take a secondary place to the actual lived experiences of the child.
As it stands, professionals working with children have legal and, one can argue, moral obligations regarding the promotion and protection of the human rights of children. Therefore it is pertinent to ask what sort of added value will the development of theoretical and practical constructs of a human rights approach bring to the current shortcomings in integrated working? We would like to offer three compelling reasons for developing a human rights approach for integrated working involving children.
First and foremost, the emphasis on the human rights of the child works to ensure that services focus on the actual lived experiences of the child. This means it is not just a question of providing a service according to some guidelines based solely on professional opinion, but rather ensuring services focus on how they actually contribute to the child’s development, welfare, and where necessary, physical protection.
Second, a human rights approach gives a common language that professionals can use in their own interactions, in formulating policies for children’s services and engaging in discussions with end users. Rather than professionals sticking to a particular set of definitions or terminology based on their disciplines, the focus through the human rights approach is on the child and the actual conditions of the child that will be used in assessments and discussions.
Third, a human rights foundation for the delivery of integrated services gives a higher moral and legal force to discussions about how public services care for children. By focussing on the actual experiences of the child, human rights provide a tool for critique as well as a vocabulary for discussing and pursuing desired objectives.
It is recognised that a human rights approach will bring with it shortcomings and difficulties, but at the very least, it appears to provide an element of common ground that is about the child which professionals can use when working together. Undoubtedly, by focussing on the actual lived experiences of children through a human rights approach in the delivery of public services, there will be a questioning of preconceived notions leading to the formulation of more effective policies and practices. But as the unfortunate events of children dying due to a lack of effective integrated working make clear, there is a need for substantial changes in how services are delivered.
While it is hoped that the moral argument which demands greater respect for the human rights of children from the state and public authorities is apparent, this can be supplemented by the legal obligations upon all public authorities for respecting the human rights of children. The UK is bound by a number of international human rights treaties (such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the European Convention on Human Rights) that require that the human rights of children will be respected and upheld.
With respect to the European Convention, there is a domestic legal framework requiring all public authorities to act in a manner compatible with the Convention rights, and the domestic courts are obliged to interpret legal provisions in a manner that is compatible with the Convention rights. These legal frameworks are not about placing unnecessary burdens upon professionals, preventing them from effectively doing their jobs. Rather the underlying purpose of human rights obligations is to create frameworks that support individuals, of any age, having a dignified life. The Convention on the Rights of the Child does not place obligations restricting the ability of service providers to work with children. Rather the purpose of this legal document is to ensure the Government has in place measures to support the realisation of the human rights contained therein.
It must be recognised that too often talk of human rights brings out images of self-interested and selfish individuals demand a whole range of frivolous things from any one who will listen. In respect of children, talking about human rights has led to images of children suing parents or teachers for seemingly trivial matters. More generally, we hear criticisms of human rights as unduly constraining public authorities, creating risk averse societies, and letting criminals or terrorists make unreasonable demands upon the state.
While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that can be used to support these views, the argument overlooks the protective and transformative force in human rights. Human rights are high level moral claims that individuals require for physical survival and a dignified life. Human rights are about the individual, but human rights are not about letting individuals do whatever they want. Rather human rights are better understood as claims necessary for life and dignity, and a measurement for discussing how we treat individuals in society. In the context of children’s services the human rights approach emphasises the need to take account of children as rights holders, and it also places attention on the various duty-bearers and their obligations to ensure minimum standards are upheld and to justify why certain practices are pursued.
A human rights approach to integrated working involving children gives greater attention to the actual lived experiences of the child. It does not allow for a mere transference of adult views, be it parents or care providers, as to what the child needs. The human rights approach demands the child is respected as a rights holder and is a participant in the processes impacting upon their physical survival and development.
There is at present a range of developments that are influencing and will continue to influence integrated working practices. The current discussion of legislative reform following the Dunford Report, ongoing developments in law and policy regarding the UK’s human rights obligations and the academic and practical interest in finding effective and efficient means for managing and delivering integrated services, all point to the need for some unifying measures. We argue that a foundation for integrated working involving children based on human rights, in both the moral and legal senses, will provide a common ground that governmental structures, front-line professionals, children and families can utilise in order to ensure services are delivered effectively as the focus will now be on the actual lived experiences of children.
At the moment attention to the human rights of children is lacking in policy, law and practice and integrated working is guided too much by what adults believe is best for the well-being of children and not their human rights. For integrated working to be effective for children it must be based on the actual lived experiences of children, and a human rights based approach to integrated working is an appropriate and necessary framework for supporting children.
Ally Dunhill lectures at the Faculty of Education and Dr Richard Burchill at the Law School in the University of Hull.
Reading and Resources
Dunford, John, Review of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, Department of Education, 2010.
Fortin, Jane, Children’s Rights and the Developing Law, 3rd ed., Cambridge, 2009.
Jones, Phil and Sue Welch, Rethinking children’s Rights: Attitudes in Contemporary Society, Continuum, 2010.
Kellett, Mary, Children’s Perspectives on Integrated Services: Every Child Matters in Policy and Practice, Palgrave, 2011.
Munro Review of Child Protection, documents and related material available at http://www.education.gov.uk/munroreview/
UK Children’s Commissioners’ Report to UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2008 available at http://www.niccy.org/uploaded_docs/UNCRC_REPORT_FINAL.pdf
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/index.htm