Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 16

This article was downloaded by: [188.81.238.

171]
On: 18 March 2014, At: 18:28
Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered
office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
Australian Social Work
Publication details, including instructions for authors and
subscription information:
http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rasw20
Something Amazing I Guess:
Children's Views on Having A Say About
Supervised Contact
Robyn Fitzgerald
a
& Anne Graham
a
a
Centre for Children and Young People , Southern Cross
University , Lismore, New South Wales, Australia
Published online: 02 Nov 2011.
To cite this article: Robyn Fitzgerald & Anne Graham (2011) Something Amazing I Guess:
Children's Views on Having A Say About Supervised Contact, Australian Social Work, 64:4, 487-501,
DOI: 10.1080/0312407X.2011.573861
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2011.573861
PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE
Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the
Content) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,
our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to
the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions
and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,
and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content
should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources
of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims,
proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever
or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or
arising out of the use of the Content.
This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any
substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,
systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms &
Conditions of access and use can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-
and-conditions
Something Amazing I Guess: Childrens Views on Having A Say
About Supervised Contact
Robyn Fitzgerald* & Anne Graham
Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University, Lismore, New South Wales,
Australia
Abstract
This paper reports on a small-scale, qualitative study on childrens perspectives about
their participation in decision-making processes regarding supervised contact. The paper
begins with an overview of the study and a summary of findings in relation to four key
research questions framed around the idea of children having a say, that is, childrens
views and perspectives of their participation in family law decision-making processes.
These key questions include: What are childrens experiences of having a say? What are
childrens understandings of having a say? Did children want a say in the decision for
them to have supervised contact? How did having (or not having) a say feel? Discussion
focuses on what importance children place on having a say in family law matters, a
finding that is contrasted with childrens experiences of marginalisation and exclusion
from decision-making processes and of ambivalence and reluctance sometimes expressed
around having a say. Childrens idea of having a say as taking place in and through
particular forms of dialogue and conversation, thus enabling the recognition of children
and respect for what they have to say, are also explored. We conclude by reflecting on the
implications of the study for professionals working in family law
Keywords: Childrens Rights; Participation; Qualitative Research; Family Law; Critical
Hermeneutics
Over the past decade there has been a proliferation of supervised contact orders in
Australian family law matters, with thousands of children now attending Childrens
Contact Services (CCSs) every year. This trend reflects a broader shift in family law
and associated policy, both nationally and internationally, which emphasises the
enduring importance of childrens relationships with both parents (Perry & Rainey,
2007). In Australia, this principle has become enshrined in law following the 2006
amendments to the Family Law Act (Cth), whereby a presumption of equal shared
parental responsibility now exists. If applicable, the court must consider whether
spending equal time with both parents would be in a childs best interests and
Accepted 31 January 2011
*Correspondence to: Dr Robyn Fitzgerald, Southern Cross University, Centre for Children and Young People,
PO Box 157, Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia. E-mail: robyn.fitzgerald@scu.edu.au
ISSN 0312-407X (print)/ISSN 1447-0748 (online) # 2011 Australian Association of Social Workers
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2011.573861
Australian Social Work
Vol. 64, No. 4, December 2011, pp. 487501
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

reasonably practicable. Childrens rights to a meaningful relationship with both
parents and to be safe are now primary considerations in the courts determination
of a childs best interests, with significant implications for the determination of
orders for supervised contact.
Few data are available as to the number of children attending supervised contact in
Australia each year. The majority of childrens contact services are funded under the
Family Relationship Services Program (FRSP) by the Attorney Generals Department
and administered by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services, and
Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) under the Childrens Contact Services (CCS) program,
and only data on the number of parents attending the 65 funded Childrens Contact
Services (CCS) are available. However, the convenor of the Australian Childrens
Contact Services Association (ACCSA), Ms Sue Thompson, has suggested that at least
3,250 children attend supervised visits each year, based on what she described as a
very conservative estimate of 50 children at each of the 65 CCSs located around
Australia. She noted that at least 17 nongovernment private providers also offer
supervised visits and changeovers, and that data about these children are also not
available (Sue Thompson, personal communication, December 6, 2010).
Families who use CCSs have been identified as having a range of complex problems
due to factors such as actual or alleged instances of domestic violence, abuse, neglect,
fear of abduction, parental drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues, and
economic disadvantage (Sheehan et al., 2005). Faced with circumstances where the
risk to the child of unsupervised contact is judged to be unacceptable, supervised
contact offers a safe alternative to support a childs relationship with both parents
(Sheehan et al., 2005). CCSs are thus seen as a way of balancing the rights of children
to regular contact and the need to be protected from harm.
Notwithstanding the expansion of CCSs and the key role they play in facilitating
safe contact between a child and parent, the rights of children to have their views and
experiences heard and taken into account have been largely missing from the
evidence-base informing such policy developments. The purpose of this paper is to
report the findings of a small-scale, qualitative study on childrens perspectives about
their participation in the decision-making processes regarding supervised contact.
Childrens Participation in Family Law Decision-Making
In Australia, courts making parenting orders must engage in a difficult balancing act
of weighing up the benefits and detriments of a childs contact with a parent in
situations where family violence, neglect, or abuse are substantiated or alleged. As
with all parenting orders, the childs views must be considered when supervised
contact is being assessed (Family Law Act (Cth)). The Family Courts Guidelines for
Family Law Courts and Childrens Contact Services provide that the childs views
should be sought when assessing the length of time a family may use the service, that
services should take account of the childs views and, if necessary, communicate those
views to the independent childrens lawyer (ICL) (Commonwealth of Australia,
488 R. Fitzgerald & A. Graham
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

2007). Such developments signal a broader shift in family law towards recognising the
importance of childrens participation.
There are many reasons for this shift. First and foremost, participation is a right
afforded to all children by Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights
of the Child (UNCRC). In addition, several other articles give expression to childrens
participation rights, including the right to get and share information and freedom of
expression (Article 13), freedom of association (Article 15), rights to information
(Article 17), and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (Article 14). Article
9(2) provides that all interested parties shall have the opportunity to participate
and be heard in legal proceedings pertaining to child custody, a provision that must
surely include children themselves. The UNCRC embodies notions that children
should be respected and heard, and that children, like everybody else, have social,
political, economic, and civil rights.
Second, listening to children during times of parental separation is well-accepted as
having positive benefits for their wellbeing (Bagshaw, Quinn, & Schmidt, 2006;
Cashmore, 2003; Graham & Fitzgerald, 2006; Shea Hart, 2003; Smart, Neale, & Wade,
2001; Smith, Taylor, & Tapp, 2003). These benefits include the likelihood of better
decisions and outcomes, and of greater acceptance and compliance by children, the
basic right of children as people with opinions and feelings of their own to be treated
with respect, and the demonstrable fact that adults and even parents do not always
act in the best interests of children (Cashmore, 2003, p. 59). Children say they cope
better if they have appropriate information and involvement and are helped to
understand the changes taking place around them (Graham, 2004). Thirdly,
contemporary understandings of children as having strengths and competencies
have transformed children from invisible objects into subjects with legitimate voices
of their own (James & Prout, 1997). Such understandings have been influenced by the
emergence of Childhood Studies, an interdisciplinary approach which conceptualises
children as being in possession of the agency, capacity, voice, and status to participate
in social and political life.
Yet, in the pro-contact, high-conflict landscape of family law decision-making,
childrens participation rights, along with evidence of the benefits of such
participation, are often overlooked. Children report feeling marginalised from family
law decision-making, with few children reporting any significant involvement in the
formulation of initial or ongoing residence and contact arrangements (Bagshaw et al.,
2006, Bagshaw et al., 2010; Campbell, 2004; Graham & Fitzgerald, 2006, Graham &
Fitzgerald, 2010a; Parkinson & Cashmore, 2008; Smith et al., 2003). Further, children
tell us they are not well prepared for their parents separation, nor are they adequately
informed about the processes that inevitably follow (Bagshaw et al., 2006; Graham &
Fitzgerald, 2010a). Keeping children in the dark only further contributes to
childrens pain and confusion, and lacking information about the separation, children
are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, to exhibit distress, and to
blame themselves for their parents separation (Taylor, 2006).
Australian Social Work 489
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

Childrens experiences of marginalisation are further evident in research, which
reveals that seeking the views of children about contact arrangements is considered by
many adults to be too difficult, inappropriate, dangerous, or difficult for children
(Warshak, 2003). What emerges from this picture is that childrens participation,
while an important principle within family law decision-making, is not easily or
readily translated into practice.
Childrens Experiences of Supervised Contact: What Do We Know?
In Australia, only a small number of studies have examined childrens experiences of
supervised contact from the perspective of children themselves. The first, Contact
Services in Australia: Research and Evaluation Project (Strategic Partners Report, 1998)
aimed to understand the impact of CCSs on children. The study found children were
ambivalent about their use of the contact service. In questionnaires with 12 children
and interviews with 4 children, half reported being happy and half unsure or
unhappy about the visit, and about the tension it created for themselves and for their
parents. Childrens worries included conflict, fear of disclosing their address to the
nonresident father, abduction, the case worker not remaining in the room, and fear of
the parent. Overall, the report found that regardless of age, length of time in the
program, type of visit and reasons for use of the service, all children displayed or
discussed feelings of insecurity and apprehension with respect to some aspect of the
visit (Strategic Partners Report, 1998, p. 76).
The second study, Childrens Contact Services: Expectation and Experience (Sheehan
et al., 2005) explored the role of CCSs in Australia and the expectations of different
parties, including 24 children, regarding the use of contact services. This study found
most children expressed a strong desire to spend more time with their contact parent,
enjoyed their visits to the centre, and felt safe and supported by staff. However, some
children wanted more flexibility, including having some control over whether contact
would continue. These studies reveal the complexity of childrens attendance at CCSs
and point to the need for further research regarding how children view their
participation in the design and implementation of orders for supervised contact.
Method
Design of the Study
The aim of this research was to examine how children, and what they have to say, are
recognised in Australian family law decision-making. At the outset, it is important to
note that the term having a say was used in this study as a proxy for participation.
After considerable consultation prior to the commencement of the study, it was
evident the language of having a say was more continuous with the everyday worlds
of children (especially younger children) and hence a more appropriate conceptual
conduit for engaging them in research seeking their views about their participation in
family law decision-making.
490 R. Fitzgerald & A. Graham
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

Participants and Recruitment
Thirteen children (8 boys and 5 girls) between the ages of 4 and 13 years were
interviewed for the study. The ages of children are not reported in the study because
the small sample size would enable the easy identification of children. All children
attended the CCS for supervised contact, although two children had recently moved
to supervised changeover. Eleven children had participated in a Family Court Report
and 10 had been appointed a separate representative.
The recruitment of children to the study was difficult and prolonged as we sought
to negotiate childrens involvement with a number of gatekeepers. In the first
instance, recruitment protocols were developed with the partner organisation. Flyers
advertising the study were posted in CCS waiting rooms in 2 centres in regional New
South Wales (NSW) and caseworkers approached families to invite their consent for
their children to participate. Prelingual and very young children were not invited to
be part of the study, although younger children showing interest in the study (e.g.,
younger siblings) were not precluded. In addition, the consent of both parents was
sought. While there was no legal or ethical obligation to do so, the young age of the
children generally in supervised contact and the highly litigious context in which
interviews took place meant issues over privacy and confidentiality assumed
heightened significance. In particular, the possibility of a parent issuing a subpoena
for research documents, as in the matter of T v L, was considered as potentially
stressful for children, despite legal precedent that such an action from parents would
not be successful provided they had given consent to researchers for their childs
participation. However, the measures taken to ensure childrens safety limited the
number of child participants. All gatekeepers cited concerns about child safety and
wellbeing as the primary reason for precluding childrens participation. Table 1
summarises the recruitment and consent details, which were negotiated over a 2-year
period.
Table 1 Family Recruitment and Consent Details
Number of families. . . CCS Site One CCS Site Two Total
. . . using the service 146 171 317
. . . approached 44 35 79
(30.1%) (20.5%) (25.0%)
. . . who agreed to be contacted 17 1 18
(38.6%) (2.9%) (22.8%)
. . . where both parents consented 10 1 11
(22.7%) (2.9%) (13.9%)
. . . participating in the study 10 1 11
(6.8%) (0.6%) (3.5%)
Australian Social Work 491
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

Procedure and Data Collection
Seeking childrens consent was an integral part of the study. In the first instance,
children were sent letters in age-appropriate language outlining the purpose of the
study and what their participation would involve. For young children, the resident
parent was contacted and requested to read the letter with the child. For those
children who agreed to be involved, discussion took place at the beginning of
the interview to clarify important ethical concerns, particularly in relation to
their understanding of the nature of the interview and their willingness to be
involved.
This approach reflects the two dimensions of doing and reporting research:
procedural ethics (seeking approval from relevant ethics committees) and ethics in
practice (negotiating everyday ethical issues) (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004). While
formal ethics approval for the project was sought and granted, striking a balance
between the ethical requirements and the reflexive methodologies inherent in a
critical hermeneutic approach (see below) proved challenging. In particular,
balancing the right of children to be heard alongside their protection rights,
was a significant consideration. Conversations with children, integral to the conduct
of semi-structured interviews, required considerable skill, sensitivity, and reflection.
The Interviews
Semi-structured in-depth interviews were chosen since these facilitate childrens
telling of their stories about supervised contact and its implications for their lives,
assisting the important process of meaning making. Geertz (1983, p. 69) described
such an approach as an intellectual movement . . . a continuous dialectical tacking
between the most local of local detail and the most global of global structure.
Interviews lasted between 20 and 50 minutes, and focused on: (a) childrens views
about supervised contact; (b) experiences of having a say in family law processes; and
(c) advice to other children, parents, CCS staff, and lawyers.
In the early stages of the interview, children were invited to engage in a number of
activities, adapted from the work of Thomas and OKane (1999), to explore the
meaning of having a say, including the question of in what? Children discussed
with the researcher what decisions were important to them, who the most important
people were in making those decisions, and what aspects of the process were most
important to them. In this way, childrens accounts of participation in family law
processes, specifically regarding supervised contact, were contextualised in relation to
childrens lived experience of participation in their everyday lives.
Interviews were audio-taped and transcribed. Themes were identified in an
iterative process of reading transcripts, listening to interviews, coding data, and
subsequent analysis in relation to the broader literature concerning childrens
participation in family law.
492 R. Fitzgerald & A. Graham
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

Theoretical Approach
The study was informed by critical hermeneutics (Kogler, 1999), with its interest in
meaning making and interpretation. Critical hermeneutics proposes a dialogical
approach to interpretation, which maintains a commitment to the integrity and
subjectivity of conversation with the other (in this case, the child) while remaining
attuned to the complexities of meaning making, including the way in which power
influences dialogue.
Adopting a critical hermeneutic approach required an intensive focus on
the nature and purpose of the conversation with each child and the ways in which
the researcher is implicated in the meanings being produced. A critical and reflective
engagement with the research process was also required since the structural
constraints and possibilities inherent in the research design necessarily limit and
confine the conversations that take place with children. While we have written
elsewhere about the possibilities offered by critical hermeneutics for understandings
of dialogue in the context of childrens participation (Graham & Fitzgerald, 2010b), it
is important to note here that there are significant ontological, epistemological,
methodological, and ethical implications in doing so.
While hermeneutics asserts there is no starting point for dialogue (Kogler, 1999),
it is possible to discern a number of interpretive movements which are integral to
the workings of conversation (Graham & Fitzgerald, 2010b; Veling, 2005). For this
research, these movements were broadly captured in the following questions: What
are you saying to me about this issue? Have I placed my own experience at risk as I
listen to what you say? Does what you say help me to see the matter of concern
differently? Are we (together) able to generate new understandings? How will you
choose to respond to these? The findings reported below have attempted to capture
the nuanced understandings and meanings generated through conversations with 13
children about their experience of supervised contact and having a say in family law
decision-making.
Findings
Consistent with an approach to inquiry informed by hermeneutic interests, the
narratives of the children were categorised under four broad themes. The first centred
around childrens experience of having a say in relation to the decision for them to
attend the CCS. The second brought into relief childrens own interpretations of what
participation is by reporting their views on having a say. The third drew together
discussion in relation to the question, Did children want a say? and sheds light on
the complex and ambivalent feelings that sometimes arise for children when they are
invited to have a say. The fourth theme focused on childrens narratives about how
having a say (or not having a say) left them feeling.
Australian Social Work 493
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

Childrens Experiences of Having a Say
When asked about their experiences of having a say in relation to attending the CCS,
almost every child (12/13) reported the decision had been made without their
involvement. Several children commented that they had not even known a decision
was being made, as Sallies
1
comments reveal:
I knew they were at court and that Dad was all nervy for a week . . . we had to tip-
toe around because we didnt want him to get mad and stuff, and I didnt know the
day. I forgot. But then I knew because when Dad got up he was all stroppy and had
to avoid me and he was a bit sad. Then Dad got dressed up. So I figured it out.
Charlie was adamant he had not had a say over the 2.5 years he had been attending
the CCS:
I didnt have any say in at all . . . I get no say to see my (siblings) or my Mum. I cant
just go and see them. I think I should have full say about who I see. They are my
family. I should be allowed to see them. I do not see my niece, I am not allowed to
see my siblings.
These findings are consistent with the low rates of consultation noted above
(Sheehan et al., 2005; Strategic Partners Report, 1998), and reflected in a Scottish
study of CCSs, which found children did not report any sense in which the decision
to use a centre was made with their best interests at heart, they uniformly described
having little input into decision-making (Sproston, Woodfield, & Tisdall, 2004,
p. 89).
The children in our study also had little understanding of the decision-making
processes leading up to supervised contact. This was evident in a number of ways:
Uncertainty About the Role of Adults in the Decision-Making Processes
While an independent childrens lawyer had been appointed for most children (10
out of 13) only 2 could recall talking with the lawyer. Similarly, 11 children had been
the subject of a Family Court report and yet none could recall speaking with a report
writer. Two children confused the role of case workers with decision-makers, stating
that CCS staff had responsibility for supervised contact arrangements:
The people there are really good [but] . . . they try to make it difficult. (Charlie)
Well . . . . they (staff) dont trust us . . . . they reckon we need to be supervised.
(Dylan)
Such confusion over the role of important adults was clearly detrimental to
childrens ability to make sense of, and adapt to, the contact arrangements, or to seek
the support of professionals.
1
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned.
494 R. Fitzgerald & A. Graham
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

Lack of Information
The majority of children (12 out of 13) had been given little or no information about
supervised contact and did not understand what CCSs were until their first visit. Ben
revealed that he felt like freaked . . . like freaked. Four children would have liked
more information or a visit from a neutral person to allow them to ask questions,
talk about what it all meant, find out what was going on, and establish no one is
hiding stuff .
The lack of information and consultation inhibited the childrens capacity to adjust
to change, understand what was happening, and to anticipate what lay ahead. Zoes
observations are pertinent:
You dont even know about the thing . . . so you dont know if you should have a
say . . . so then you wouldnt have information. I always know what Dad and Mum
wants but I never know what is going to happen.
No One To Talk To
Few children felt they had anyone to talk to about going to supervised contact. In
contrast to other research where children report grandparents and friends as key
confidants (see Dunn & Deater-Deckard, 2001), the majority of children in our study
said they had rarely or never spoken about their feelings and experiences of
supervised contact or about current and future arrangements. When asked why they
didnt talk to others, children conveyed a sense of suspicion and lack of trust, hence
their desire for more information to fill in the gaps.
What is Having a Say?
The majority of children interviewed (10 out of 13) thought having a say was
something all children should have. These findings resonate with broader research
findings, which revealed consistent calls from children to be heard in decision-
making processes that affect them (see Bagshaw et al., 2006, Bagshaw et al., 2010;
Campbell, 2004; Graham & Fitzgerald, 2006, Graham & Fitzgerald, 2010a; Parkinson
& Cashmore, 2008; Smith et al., 2003).
Being listened to was the most important feature of having a say for the 7 of 9
children who commented, as John suggested: listen to the kids*dont be too hard
on them*because then they wont tell you what is going on. For those children who
did not want to attend the CCS, the very fact of their supervised contact was the end
result of not being listened to.
This said, the landscape of listening was portrayed as involving far more than
adults merely listening to children, with the process of having a say perceived as
offering space and possibilities for thinking through choices and for clarifying
childrens understandings of events, as evident in Sallies comments:
But sometimes you have decisions thrown on straight away. And that is not a very
good thing to happen. It might take a while to think about what you wanted to say.
Australian Social Work 495
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

For many children, having a say was an important aspect of good decision-making,
ensuring parents and other decision-makers would be better able to know what
children feel and want.
Children generally considered that while adults should listen to children and take
their views into account in a supportive environment, ultimately it was adults
responsibility to make decisions about their future contact.
Only 3 children said having a say should equate with getting what you want;
one repeatedly stated that he wanted unsupervised contact and no-one listened; two
others were attending supervised contact as a result of allegations of sexual abuse
made against their fathers. In both cases, the sometimes tenuous relationship between
childrens participation and their protection was highlighted by the strength with
which the children asserted that they should have a say. While the limited number
of children involved in this study means this finding cannot be generalised, it is
relevant to note Parkinson and Cashmores (2008) study that included four children
involved in highly contested matters who reported that, while concerned about the
direct consequences of having a say (such as being hit, hurt, or not let them in
the house [p. 70]), they still wanted to have a say and thought it appropriate that
they do so. In a recent study on family violence, Bagshaw et al. (2010) reported that
the majority of children interviewed (9 out of 12 children aged between 9 and 17
years) said it was important for children to be given a say in parenting decisions.
The findings of our study are consistent with research, which reports that having a
say is generally not something children consider to be an autonomous act, or to take
place in isolation from family life, but that a determinative say should not be
precluded in certain circumstances (Parkinson & Cashmore 2008; Smith et al., 2003).
Importantly, children envisaged participation as being about a process and an
outcome, whereby children are supported to participate in reaching a decision that is
good for themselves and their parents, but arrived at conjointly through conversation
about the issues of most concern to the children.
Having a Say: Is it Something Children Want?
The majority of children (12 out of 13) reported having little or no say in the decision
to attend supervised contact. Yet, their experiences of exclusion cannot be simply
attributed to their participation being constrained by adults. Rather, a more complex
situation was apparent, whereby some children did not want to, or were highly
ambivalent about, having a say. Thus another layer to childrens understandings and
intentions around having a say was revealed, which appeared to be, to some extent,
contradictory in terms of their previously stated desire for participation.
Children provided several reasons for not wanting a say, including fear of a parents
response, fear or concern of hurting or distressing a parent, thinking there was not
much point (in their experience no one would listen even if they did express a view),
and that adults should have the responsibility for making decisions. Sallie, who had
been quite strident in her view that children should have a say, emphasised that
496 R. Fitzgerald & A. Graham
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

sometimes the people will know what is better for you, and that making a good
decision requires knowledge and information that, she felt in some cases, might not
be appropriate for children to be privy to. Ultimately, she felt the balance should be in
favour of children being heard:
If it is 50/50*like some people reckon it will benefit them and some reckon it
wont, then kids should have a bigger say.
How Does Having a Say or Not Having a Say Feel?
When asked directly how having a say felt, the childrens responses were immediate.
Being listened to and having their views heard made children feel happy, while the
converse was also true*not having a say made children feel sad, bad, angry,
upset, and left out . . . . like I had no choice about whats going to happen. Thus,
childrens accounts reveal strong links between the recognition they experience when
given the opportunity to have a say and the negative emotional response children feel
when their views are not heard.
However, to suggest that having a say is good and not to have a say is bad,
would be to arbitrarily dichotomise childrens accounts in ways that do not reflect the
nuance and complexity of their views and experience of participation. In this study,
children oscillated between demanding to have a say, (evidenced by assertive
statements about its importance) and resisting or avoiding it, (reflected in reports
that children did not want, felt unable, or were fearful of having a say). This to and
fro between childrens agency and vulnerability is a less well reported aspect of
childrens participation in family law processes. Yet, far from providing grounds for
dismissing childrens accounts as inconsistent or unreliable, the to and fro revealed
a rich account of the complex layering linked to participation as children reflected on
the possibilities and constraints that shape having a say.
Discussion
What is Participation? Insights from Children, Implications for Practitioners
The childrens narratives offer a number of insights for practitioners seeking to invite
the participation of children in legal or other settings. In the following discussion, we
highlight a number of key features children emphasised as being important, if not
essential, to good decision-making.
Firstly, children need, and sometimes demand, recognition. While children moved
between wanting a say and the reality that having a say could also be confusing,
upsetting, or painful for them or their parents, or both, these emotional narratives
did not alter the fact that participation is an act of recognition. The childrens call for
recognition is echoed in Taylors (1995) observation that recognition is not simply a
social courtesy but instead constitutes a vital human need (p. 226).
This does not mean children thought participation is always a good thing or that
it should be a fait accompli, but that children should be treated as individuals,
Australian Social Work 497
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

separate from their parents, and afforded the opportunity to have a say. The interplay
between dependency and agency merely highlights the productive potential of
childrens capacity for coping, problem solving, and decision-making within complex
and, at times, risky, family situations.
Adding to this complexity, childrens need for recognition was strongly present in
the absence of that recognition. The children in this study could identify few people
they could trust with their thoughts about contact, few who they perceived valued
what they might have to say, and very little, if any, choice about the events taking
place around them. When left unmet, we see childrens need for recognition revealed
in their confusion, sadness, and sense of isolation. Further, the absence of recognition
appeared to compromise childrens ability to understand, cope, and adapt to the
change in their families circumstances.
Secondly, far from being a one-off event, children imagined participation as
supporting them to have their voices facilitated into decision-making in ways that
enabled choice, clarity, and change in relation to contact arrangements. For some
children, particularly those who had reported abuse, there was a stronger claim for
respecting their views and for taking these into account in subsequent decisions and
actions.
Finally, the failure to invite children to have a say is significant. While family law
clearly points to the fact that childrens views must be heard, it is clear that for the
children in this study this principle was not applied in any tangible way. Few children
were invited to participate, most were confused about the roles of various adults, few
were able to recall being provided with relevant information, and most appeared not
to make any connection between the adults they had spoken to and their own sense of
whether they had a say in the decision-making processes. Consequently, the meaning
children attached to having a say was not so much shaped by their experiences of
involvement but by their marginalisation in decision-making.
Conclusion
Implications for Practice: Some Concluding Thoughts
In conclusion, this study points to the need for a paradigm shift in the way childrens
participation is conceptualised and practiced if its possibilities are to be realised. To
speak of child-centred and child-inclusive practice suggests we must commit to a
deeper consciousness of how we intend to recognise children throughout the
decision-making process. We have seen in this study that conversations with children
about their participation in family law decisions are not just a process to which
children are (or are not) invited to talk about their views, experiences, fears, and
uncertainties: rather, these conversations create a space within which children
discover and negotiate the essence of who they are and their place in the world.
Children are integral in our society and have much to contribute to its
development; however, the findings of this study suggest that recognition and
498 R. Fitzgerald & A. Graham
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

respect of childrens insights and knowledge should continue to be fostered through
conversations with them, no matter how complex and contested. Inviting authentic
participation from, and dialogue with, children requires a new set of skills from
parents and professionals, requiring them to work alongside children, familiarising
themselves with the childs context, orienting themselves to read and understand
the childs point of view, and providing respectful but non intrusive support for their
engagement in dialogue.
This study suggests the need for improving adult understanding of childrens
perspectives so they might better recognise children and take their views seriously
following separation. For example, how might parenting programs and resources
improve the capacity and willingness of parents to invite their children to
conversation while supporting parents to address their own fears around giving
children increased opportunities for having a say?
The findings of this study might further prompt practitioners to ask themselves
whether the invitation to children to participate is accompanied by an intention on
their part to take the views of children seriously, to respond to what they have to say,
and, if necessary, to change. As Neale (2004) argued, inviting children to have a say
not only requires tangible resources to ensure participatory processes are properly
developed, staffed, and resourced, but also that adults rethink the way they
see children, and practise and reflect on new ways of relating to them and,
most importantly, to build these new ways of working into their daily routines
(pp. 179180).
Children, too, require support to participate, and the study may prompt
practitioners to consider how to strengthen childrens capacity to participate in
family law decision-making. At its most basic, this requires improving childrens
understanding of the legal processes following separation. This might take place in a
number of ways*from having someone to talk to that they can trust or have
confidence in, through to having access to information and resources. In addition to
information, children need the opportunity for conversations that support the
process of discernment*about whether they want to have a say at all, what it is
they want heard, and how they might participate in the process. Opportunities to
learn from other children with similar experiences, and access to follow up
information are further ways of supporting children to participate in meaningful
and constructive ways. These are ongoing challenges we should not shy away from if
the language and potential of participation and child-centred practice is to be fully
realised.
Acknowledgements
The authors gratefully acknowledge the children who agreed to be part of this study,
and the parents, the Childrens Contact Centre sta and members of the Executive of
the organisation who supported the childrens involvement in the study.
Australian Social Work 499
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

References
Bagshaw, D., Brown, T., Wendt, S., Campbell, A., McInnes, E., Tinning, B., et al. (2010). Family
violence and family law in Australia: The experiences and views of children and adults from
families who separated post-1995 and post-2006. Canberra: Attorney-Generals Department.
Bagshaw, D., Quinn, K., & Schmidt, B. (2006). Children & families in transition: Towards a child-
centred integrated model of practice. Magill: University of South Australia.
Campbell, A. (2004). The voice of the child in Australian family law: Whose right? Whos right?
(Doctoral Thesis). Adelaide: University of South Australia, School of Social Work and Social
Policy.
Cashmore, J. (2003). Childrens participation in family law matters. In C. Hallett & A. Prout (Eds.),
Hearing the voices of children: Social policy for a new century (pp. 158176). New York, NY:
Routledge.
Commonwealth of Australia. (2007). Guidelines for family law courts and childrens contact services.
Canberra: Attorney Generals Department.
Dunn, J., & Deater-Decker, K. (2001). Childrens views of their changing families. Merrill-Palmer
Quarterly, 50, 224235.
Geertz, C. (1983). Local knowledge: Further essays in interpretative anthropology. New York, NY: Basic
Books.
Graham, A. (2004). Life is like the seasons: Responding to change, loss and grief through a peer
based education program. Childhood Education, 80, 317322.
Graham, A., & Fitzgerald, R. (2006). Taking account of the to and fro of childrens voices.
Children Australia, 31, 3036.
Graham, A., & Fitzgerald, R. (2010a). The changing landscape of family law: Exploring the promises
and possibilities for childrens participation in Australian Family Relationship Centres.
Family Matters, 84, 5360.
Graham, A., & Fitzgerald, R. (2010b). Progressing childrens participation: Exploring the potential
of a dialogical turn. Childhoods, 17, 343359.
Guillemin, M., & Gillam, L. (2004). Ethics, reexivity, and ethically important moments in
research. Qualitative Inquiry, 10, 261280.
Kogler, H. (1999). The power of dialogue: Critical hermeneutics after Gadamer and Foucault.
London: MIT Press.
Neale, B. (2004). Conclusion: Ideas into practice. In C. Willow, et al. (Eds.), Young childrens
citizenship: Ideas into practice (pp. 164180). New York, NY: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Parkinson, P., & Cashmore, J. (2008). The voice of the child in parenting disputes. Canada: Oxford
University Press.
Perry, A., & Rainey, B. (2007). Supervised, supported and indirect contact orders: Research ndings.
International Journal of Law. Policy and the Family, 21, 2147.
James, A., & Prout, A. (Eds.). (1997). Constructing and reconstructing childhood. London: Falmer
Press.
Shea Hart, A. (2003). The silent minority: The voice of the child in family law. Children Australia,
28, 3138.
Sheehan, G., Carson, R., Fehlberg, B., Hunter, R., Tomison, A., Regin, I., et al. (2005). Childrens
contact services: Expectation and experience. Nathan: University of Melbourne and Australian
Institute of Family Studies.
Smart, C., Neale, B., & Wade, A. (2001). The changing experience of childhood. Cambridge: Polity
Press.
Smith, A., Taylor, N., & Tapp, P. (2003). Rethinking childrens involvement in decision-making after
parental separation. Childhood, 10, 201216.
Sproston, K., Woodeld, K., & Tisdall, K. (2004). Building bridges? Expectations and experiences of
child contact centres in Scotland. Report to the SESR, Scotland.
500 R. Fitzgerald & A. Graham
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4

Strategic Partners Report. (1998). Contact services in Australia: Research and evaluation project.
Canberra: Attorney Generals Department.
T v L (unreported, 12 October, 2001, Collier J, Parramatta).
Taylor, C. (1995). Philosophical arguments. London: Harvard University Press.
Taylor, N. (2006). What do we know about involving children and young people in family law
decision-making? A research update. Australian Journal of Family Law, 20, 154178.
Thomas, N., & OKane, C. (1999). Childrens experiences of decision-making in middle childhood.
Childhood, 6, 36988.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Opened for signature 20
November 1989. Entered into force 2 September 1990.
Veling, T. (2005). Practical theology. New York, NY: Orbis.
Warshak, R. (2003). Payoffs and pitfalls of listening to children. Family Relations, 52, 373384.
Australian Social Work 501
D
o
w
n
l
o
a
d
e
d

b
y

[
1
8
8
.
8
1
.
2
3
8
.
1
7
1
]

a
t

1
8
:
2
8

1
8

M
a
r
c
h

2
0
1
4