The Paradox of Participation: Exploring the Discourses and Affect of Child Participation in Public Law Children Act Proceedings

Hammond, Sara Louise (2022). The Paradox of Participation: Exploring the Discourses and Affect of Child Participation in Public Law Children Act Proceedings. PhD thesis The Open University.



The aim of this research is to examine the ways children and professionals make sense of the practice and experience of child participation in public law Children Act proceedings. Conceptually, child participation is largely rooted in article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provides that children should have the right to express their informed views freely to decision-makers and to have those views taken into account.

In public law proceedings, these ideas seem difficult to translate into practice however. Professionals feel disempowered and discomfited by versions of children’s participation that involve children’s more direct involvement in the Court process and tend to regard children’s participation as interfering with, disrupting or distracting from their ability to protect children’s welfare effectively. Children also feel disempowered and discomfited by versions of participation that exclude or marginalise them from their own proceedings, as they feel dis-connected from the decisions that affect their lives so profoundly. Paradoxically, children tend to regard professional practices around protection as interfering, disrupting or stifling their ability to participate meaningfully and consequently to contribute to their own protection and welfare.

In part, this research builds on previously noted concerns in the academic literature about whether the principles enunciated in child participation policy translate well into child protection practice. The research is novel because it expands the focus of child participation in child protection work to the arena of public law proceedings themselves. It is also novel because it is based on interviews with legal and care professionals alongside interviews with those who as former child subjects themselves sought to participate in their own proceedings beyond giving their ‘wishes and feelings’ to professionals to report to the Court in their stead.

Using discourse analysis, I examined the talk generated during those interviews with social workers, guardians, solicitors and barristers as well as individuals who experienced public law proceedings as children, to see how those participants make sense of the practice and experience of child participation in what I show to be a highly contextual and contingent arena. My research demonstrates that the dominant discourse of welfare-through-protection produces and perpetuates versions of child participation in public law proceedings that inevitably place professionals at the centre of public law proceedings and marginalise children. Professional participants talked about child participation as deeply unsatisfying and as occasions that were fraught with risk for them personally and professionally whilst proceedings-experienced participants spoke about the tight professional regulation of their participation as stifling their opportunities to participate meaningfully. In consequence, perceiving child participation as blocked, imaginary or unachievable means that participation itself appears both deeply affect-laden and paradoxical to everyone. Consequently, I argue that the practice of child participation occupies a highly contentious space within public law proceedings because of the way in which child-adult relations are organised around the contradictory cultural and discursive assumptions children and professionals make about childhood and children’s protection/participation needs. Thus, whilst child participation might always be understood to involve children confronting and negotiating power dynamics with professionals, I found that the deeply embedded and contingent nature of these affective/discursive beliefs and practices served to confound more relational opportunities for children’s participation, and in so doing, created a paradox of participation.

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