Sally Holland Special Edition

Social work and children’s human rights in Wales in the pandemic- and beyond

This article provides a view from Wales on building a children’s social care response that is centred on children’s human rights. Wales is not immune from the issues that have sparked care reviews in Scotland, and now England, but there are no published plans for a care review here.  

As we strive to find the best ways to support children and their families beyond the pandemic it will be essential that any steps we take reflect a central commitment to the human rights of children, their families and communities. It is clear to me that taking a human rights approach is not only important for protecting the dignity and entitlements of those receiving services, but also restores to practitioners the values that led many to seek a career in social work in the first place.

When finalising our work plan for 2020-21 in February 2020, my team at the Children’s Commissioner for Wales office and I had, of course, no real sense of what was about to hit us in terms of the pandemic. Apart from the slight alarm bells raised by my far-sighted IT officer who had several weeks before sent me a memo about the risks of a global pandemic, we were expecting a normal year of rolling out our strategic goals which included ensuring that public service organisations take a children’s human rights approach when designing and delivering their services.

The pandemic inevitably led to urgent additional work, including conducting huge surveys of children’s experiences and ensuring the Welsh Government acted on the findings, resisting any legal dilution of rights to services during the pandemic, while accepting the delivery of rights would have to be different, highlighting unequal experiences of lockdowns arising from poverty, ethnicity and disability, and ensuring that looked after children and children in closed settings were supported and their rights protected throughout the period.

Despite the urgency of the Covid response, we were determined to continue with our planned work alongside. One project explored barriers and successes in taking a children’s rights approach in children’s social care and the resulting guide was published this month.

When the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act was passed in 2014 it contained an amendment stating that all those carrying out the functions of the Act bear the duty to pay due regard to children’s rights, alongside other crucial human rights treaties. This means that social workers and other social services staff are ‘duty-bearers’ under the UNCRC, with a duty to uphold and defend children’s human rights. They are designated, in short, as human rights workers. My office had campaigned hard for this amendment, but since then I have been unsure whether the duty felt like a ‘nice to have’ platitude on the front of the legislation or a tool that could empower practitioners to advocate alongside children and their families for their human rights to be respected and fulfilled, including rights to be listened to and included, receive support and services, protection from harm and equality and non-discrimination. We have certainly continued to investigate cases where children and young people’s rights had not been fully upheld when requiring social services support.

Discussions over the last year with children and young people, social workers, young parents, foster carers and residential workers have demonstrated not only a strong commitment to human rights approaches in Wales, but also some real successes in protecting human rights during the pandemic using flexible and creative approaches.

Our guide highlights these under the 5 principles of a children’s rights approach:

  1. Embedding rights. This means at an executive level there is a commitment to rights, they are written into policies, staff are trained and organisations make public commitments to protect and promote children’s human rights. Children and their families receive the important message that they are not receiving services because of what they lack – a deficit approach – but because all children have the same rights to be supported to fulfil their potential.
  2. Equality and non-discrimination. This is a fundamental human rights principle. We know that children and their families are more likely to be caught up in statutory children’s services when they live in poverty. Disabled children and adults face systematic barriers, Children from Black, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds including Gypsy, Roma and traveller children face racism and many face other economic and institutional barriers. Recognising these barriers and taking active steps to combat them is human rights work in practice.
  3. Empowerment. When children and young people know about their rights and have good experiences of them then they are more likely to be in a position to take them up. Social workers have a role in ensuring they make children aware of their rights and give everyday opportunities to experience them through advocacy, participation and shared decision-making.
  4. Participation. Organisations make better decisions when they involve the people they are there to serve. This includes participation of individuals in their own care plans as well as at an institutional level. Our guide showcases good examples of participation practice, including online during the pandemic.
  5. Accountability. Organisations who provide services need to put themselves in a position where they can be held accountable. That includes governments, local authorities and all kinds of providers. This can include publishing documents in accessible ways, being transparent about budgets and outcomes, having accessible complaints systems and boards, senior leaders and elected members opening themselves up to scrutiny sessions, including by children.

While our role means that we concentrate on the human rights of children, it is clear that the five principles above work equally well when considering the services we provide to people of all ages. Our guide includes examples of human rights practice, top tips and the views of children and practitioners. It’s electronic only and we have an open call for more examples of practice that we can share with others.

Social work is a demanding job at any time. During the Covid-19 pandemic it has been especially hard. I’ve heard from social workers who have tried to conduct complex child protection work while home-schooling small children. Many have missed the collaboration and support of the office. There has been little publicity about social workers and other social care staff who have continued conducting home visits, including before much was known about the virus, and considerable bravery has been shown. Foster carers and residential carers have had no option for distance working and have had to become educators and public health workers alongside their usual roles, often having to console and support children who have been unable to see their families face-to-face. Despite all this, many have been flexible, innovative and continued to be human rights workers by bringing to my office’s attention concerns they have, and asked for support in challenging injustices where they’ve spotted them.

I’m proud that in Wales we were the only UK nation that avoided any dilution of children’s legal rights on a temporary measure using Covid-19 legislation. Free school meal provision was quickly converted to cash transfers for families in most areas at a rate of £19.50 per child per week (the highest in the UK) and provided during the holidays without any public debate on the matter. That doesn’t mean that children and their families haven’t suffered during these times – our surveys show that children from BAME backgrounds and disabled children have had systematically worse experiences than their peers during national lockdowns. But legal entitlements are important, whether they are entitlements to human rights, to services or to income support. They allow social workers, others in public services and offices like mine to challenge when entitlements are denied and they preserve human dignity because they are rights rather than favours.  Beyond the pandemic, my team and I will continue to champion children’s human rights in Wales, and I am confident that we’ll have social workers alongside us all the way.

Prof. Sally Holland,

Children’s Commissioner for Wales