Why is it important to hear the voices of children and young people in research?

Why is it important to hear the voices of children and young people in research?

Anne Hollonds, Rachel Carson and Lesley Taylor
15 September 2020

This webinar offered insight into the experience for researchers and participants engaging in research involving children and young people.

Teacher helping preteen students with homework during tutoring session

Audio transcript: Why is it important to hear the voices of children and young people in research?

Audio transcript

ANNE HOLLONDS: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Australian Institute of Family Studies Families in Focus Webinar in conjunction with NAPCAN. Kind of extended form last week's Child Protection Week. My name's Anne Hollonds, I'm the Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, and it's my pleasure to be here today as your facilitator. I'd like to begin by first acknowledging the Traditional Owners on the land on which I'm participating today, that's the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, and to pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And, of course, to the elder on the lands where you are participating today, right across Australia.

As I said, today's webinar is in conjunction with NAPCAN, and the topic that we're here for today is about hearing the voices of children and young people in research. And this is an increasingly important issue. Listening to children's voices is important not just for child's rights advocates, but it's also important for service providers, for policymakers, and for researchers. Today we will investigate why this has become an important issue, but also why it's sometimes complex to hear the voices of children and young people, and it's not always easy to implement.

To inform this discussion, we are fortunate to have with us Dr Rachel Carson and Lesley Taylor. Rachel is a sociolegal researcher, with expertise in family law and qualitative research about family law disputes. Since joining the Family Law and Family Violence Team at the Australian Institute of Family Studies in June 2012, Rachel has worked on range of significant family law research projects, including the Independent Children's Lawyers Study and the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments Project. Rachel was the lead researcher for the recently completed Children and Young People in Separated Families Project, and we'll be hearing from her about that as well as the Direct Cross-Examination in Family Law Matters Study. And I'll introduce Lesley Taylor to you now as well.

Lesley has dedicated her life to protecting children. After working in the front line of the Northern Territory's Child Protection system for more than ten years, in 2000, Lesley founded the Northern Territory's first sole child abuse prevention agency, the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, NAPCAN. Lesley is still today - and this is her last day - NAPCAN's National Manager Of Prevention Strategies, so we're very honoured to have Lesley with us on her last day at NAPCAN. Lesley's work has been instrumental in moving the focus from simply dealing with child abuse after it's occurred, to helping prevent it in the first place. She does this by helping communities engage with children's wellbeing, helping create child friendly and child safe communities, and Lesley's simple, powerful message is that each of us can play a role in preventing child abuse.

Now, we're going to listen to a pre-recorded presentation from Dr Rachel Carson, but before we see this, we'll start with a video that shows you, or gives you some of the voices of the children and young people from this research, and following the presentation from Rachel, we'll hear from Lesley. We'll then go into some Q&A with both of our presenters.

(Video recording plays)

VOICE: So I was like what's the point of telling her if she's not gonna listen? She spoke down to me, like, 'cause I was a child and my views didn't matter.

VOICE: It felt like I was being not so much attacked or pressured, but you know what they're like. 'Do you really think that?' Like, 'Is that what you really believe?' 'Is that a real reason, though?'

VOICE: I didn't really seek help, I guess. I basically chucked on a thick skin and acted tough and, yeah, sort of dealt with it on my own.

VOICE: If I had a meeting with one of them, and they just kind of talked me through what I could do, and what they were doing, that could have been quite useful.

VOICE: I sometimes find it hard because in the court process I was like introduced to a lot of different people.

VOICE: I feel like that's what they do. They build by trust. And like okay, cool, this is going to be cool, and then they basically just blow it out the window.

VOICE: They don't listen. They're just kind of like oh, the parents' - the parents' decision. The children have no say whatsoever.

VOICE: Just look into the reports that have been done before, or even the police reports, and like not just push them aside; actually look at them and be like 'Is this safe?'

VOICE: I think they could have organised like a whole family session so we could all be part of it, because it does involve me, as a kind of one of the possessions of the two parents.

VOICE: I wish I had a bit more say in it, 'cause that's ultimately what it's about, I guess.

VOICE: Something that helped me out through it was my dad. He kept me informed with things that would have been affecting me. And things like that, even though they're small, they've very helpful.

VOICE: I feel like it definitely exposed a lot of things that we wouldn't have talked about otherwise. And I think that it strengthened my relationship with my brothers, and probably with our mum.

VOICE: Just listen and go through with things you say you're going to do. So if you say you're going to help them, help them. If you say okay, if you want me to stop, well, stop. Just stop. And you've really got to build that trust.

VOICE: I feel like that could be a really good idea to help educate kids. Some kids may feel bad about the fact that their parents are split up, and they should know that it isn't their fault. It's never the kid's fault.

RACHEL CARSON: The animation that we have just seen presents selected quotes from our research with children and young people that focussed on their post-separation experiences of family law system services, though I hasten to clarify that for ethical reasons the quotes were spoken by people who were not participants in the study. Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation, as the traditional custodians of the land where I'm presenting from today, and to pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging, and to acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who may be joining us today. I would also like to acknowledge that the views that I am expressing in this presentation today are my views, and they may not reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Attorney-General's Department, who commissioned this research.

In this presentation, I am going to provide some context for our panel discussion today about why it is important to hear the voices of children and young people in research, and I'm going to use our Children and Young People in Separated Families Study as a case example. I'm going to outline what we learnt in the process of undertaking this study, that is what we learnt from the challenges in undertaking this research; and what we learnt from the participating children and young people about engaging in the research, and their insight into effective professional practice, which was a unique perspective that could only have been obtained by hearing from children and young people themselves.

So why is it important to listen to children and young people in research? Well, at an elementary level, it is important to do so to ensure that we are making informed decisions in policy and practice that affect children and young people's lives, and in order to achieve informed decision making in this space, it should be based on evidence, including that which is gathered directly from children and young people themselves. But it is also important to provide children and young people with the opportunity to participate, because providing this opportunity is consistent with their best interests and their sense of agency and self-efficacy because by listening to and responding to their views and experiences, we're acknowledging that these views and experiences are valid and important, thereby promoting children and young people's safety and best interests.

We are also giving effect to the participatory rights of children and young people as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, so which Australia is a signatory. The most important of these rights for the purposes of considering children's participation in research is Article 12, which provides that children who are capable of forming their own views should have the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting them and that they are given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity. In Australia now we also have the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations, and their development was led by the National Children's Commissioner, together with Commonwealth, State and Territory Community Services Ministers, under the National Framework for Protecting Australia's Children. And they are intended to provide a nationally consistent approach to instil in organisations a culture that promotes child safety and wellbeing.

The National Principles are based on a child's rights, strengths-based approach, and reflect our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and key among these principles is Principle 2, which provides that children and young people are to be informed about their rights to participate in decisions affecting them, and are taken seriously. And we have child safety standards that have been developed or are being developed in the states and territories too. And it is against this backdrop that I am now going to tell you about our experiences with the Children and Young People in Separated Families Study.

Prior to our study, there was a solid body of research regarding parents' experiences and service use post-separation, and their perspectives of children's wellbeing post-separation, but we did not have Australian research focusing on the experiences of children and young people regarding family law system services that was based on data collected directly from them. So this research was aimed at addressing this gap in the existing body of research by investigating children and young people's views and experiences where their families had accessed family law system services, principally based on data collected directly from the children and young people themselves.

In order to facilitate an in-depth investigation of this research aim, we recruited a purposive sample of families who had engaged with one or more family law system service with the recruitment through a broad range of legal and non‑legal services, and semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with children and young people as the core empirical component of this study. So a key consideration underpinning our project methodology was to value and empower children and young people to have a voice about their experiences of the Australian family law system and to provide them with a platform for their suggestions regarding how the system could better meet their needs. And this key consideration was consistent with the participatory principles that I outlined a couple of slides ago, including those in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is in fact specifically referenced in the Family Law Act.

By prioritising this key consideration, we were focused on respecting the agency and capacity of children and young people to participate. But to ensure that we conducted the research in accordance with the National Health and Medical Research Council's National Statement on the Ethical Conduct of Human Research, we had to be mindful of the particular ethical concerns arising in research with children and young people, such as their capacity to understand what the research involves and to provide informed consent; conflicting values and interests of parents and children; and possible pressure to participate in the research. So engaging with children and young people, and specifically for us with the Children and Young People in Separated Families Study, was not without its challenges.

To this end, we developed comprehensive research and ethical protocols to guide the conduct of the research, and these protocols guided our process for engaging with potential participants, for seeking informed consent, for conducting interviews, and for addressing potential risk issues during fieldwork. Guidance was, for example, provided for a staged engagement with children and young people, with steps to ensure that they understood the nature of the research, and to reassure them that there was no negative consequences if they chose not to participate, as well as other steps that were taken at that the point of interview, and during the interview, to avoid the child participating if they did not wish to do so.

The Institute's Human Research Ethics Committee provided the primary ethical review for this project, with our application for ethical clearance made in July 2016, and clearance received in September of that year, following substantial engagement with the committee. As part of this process, the committee reviewed our project methodology, our recruitment materials, including our invitations to participate, our plain language information sheets, and our consent scripts and social media material. They reviewed our interview schedules, and our research and ethical protocols. Applications for ethical clearance were also required from five other committees to enable these organisations to be involved in our recruitment activities for the study.

The protracted and complex process of obtaining ethical clearances largely reflected the cautious approach to the conduct of research directly involving children and young people in the family law context, and it involved addressing the committee's concerns about the potential harm to children and young people as a result of participating in research. So while acknowledging the steps taken to shield children and young people from involvement are benevolent in their intention, we really did need to demonstrate that facilitating and supporting children and young people's agency, capacity and indeed their right to participate was consistent with their best interests when coupled with the effective management of risks of harm that might arise from participation. And our project materials, including our research and ethical protocols, were somewhat pivotal in this context.

So I have talked about some of the challenges associated with the research design and with ethical clearances. The recruitment of a sufficient sample of children and young people to participate was also a particular challenge for this research project. We engaged in multiple protracted recruitment strategies, including the research team contacting over 500 legal and non-legal organisations and liaising more closely with over 70 of these organisations to circulate our recruitment material over a very substantial period of time to achieve our sample of 61 children and young people. For the recruitment, we had a complex sampling frame and very detailed screening protocols in order to comply with the ethical clearances which permitted children and young people aged 10 to 11 years of age to participate in an interview if it took place at least 12 months after the final resolution of their parents' family law matters; while for children and young people aged 12 to 17 years, they were permitted to participate if they were interviewed at least three months after final resolution of their parents' family law matters.

Additionally, there was a requirement for all matters relating to the separation to be fully resolved, with no foreseeable future negotiations or proceedings to be initiated by the parent. As you can imagine, a number of challenges emerged in this context. Having to wait, firstly, for matters to be finalised, and then for the three to 12 month waiting period to expire before the child or young person could participate, meant that manufacture the families that registered their interest did not qualify to participate before the end of the fieldwork period, or they were no longer interested in participating by the time they qualified, or the research team was unable to re-contact them at the expiration of the waiting period. This requirement also meant that there were potential participants who were not able to proceed, as they were unable to confirm with any certainty whether any negotiations or further proceedings were foreseeable. So it's quite a high bar.

The 12 month waiting period from the date of finalisation for all matters for 10 to 11 year old participants made the recruitment of children in this age group particularly challenging, with the research team ultimately only able to recruit and complete ten interviews with children under the age of 12. The age range of potential participants presented a challenge more generally in the conduct of research, with up to 41 registrations of interest for children aged one to two years, just shy of the sample age range. And it is worth noting that the distress of potential participants arising from the screen outs due to age or stage of proceedings requirement was evident to us as researchers engaging in the recruitment process.

As mentioned earlier, our research was guided by comprehensive protocols relating to the recruitment and screening of families and obtaining informed consent, and also conducting the interviews, protecting and maintaining the participant confidentiality, responding to distress and reporting obligations, and also for referrals to support services. And I should note that the development of these protocols and the conduct of the interviews were based on guidance from the National Health and Medical Research Council's National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, the Institute's Child Safe Research Policy, as well as relevant academic and research literature and resources relating to the safe conduct of research with children and young people.

These protocols equipped the research team with the appropriate strategies to employ during the fieldwork, and they enabled the researchers to respond appropriately where support and referrals were directed. And they also provided for a debriefing of staff to take place after all interviews. So while very challenging, the researchers were supported to implement the research, with clear guidance in place from the research and ethical protocols. In terms of addressing the challenges associated with implementing the interviews, all researchers involved in interviewing had research experience with families, children and populations with complex and diverse backgrounds, and training in child-safe research practices, with initial training and refresher training undertaken with experienced psychologists.

Two researchers were present at each interview, with one researcher experienced in interviewing children and young people conducting the interview, and a second researcher present as an observer and note-taker. This second researcher also supported the development of rapport in the interview process, they enabled non-verbal expressions and cues to be recorded that would otherwise not have been captured in the digital audio recordings, and they ensured that any signs of distress were not overlooked during the interview process. In terms of the lead up to the interview and during the interview, the researcher would contact the child or young person by telephone to confirm the interview date and time, and to answer any queries, to ensure that the child was adequately prepared for the interview; and before commencing the interview, the research would read through the oral consent script and obtain formal informed consent from the child or young person; and the voluntary nature of the participation and the privacy or the participants was reiterated both at the stage before the interview and throughout the interview process.

At the conclusion of the interviews with children and young people, the researchers provided each participant with details of appropriate support services, irrespective of whether they presented as distressed. And following each interview, there was a debriefing process. And fortunately for this project, there were no participants who were assessed as requiring one of the AIFS on-call psychologists to make a follow-up contact, and there were no circumstances assessed by the research team and the Institute's executive as triggering a notification to be made to a prescribed child welfare authority, but we had the protocols in place should this need have arisen.

During the course of the research, regular updates were also provided to the various ethics committees to keep them informed and to seek clearance free substantive changes that needed to be made to the project methodology or the materials or the recruitments activities or the protocols, as well as to advise of any complaints that may have arisen during the fieldwork period. So while there are likely to be reservations about involving children and young people in research of this nature, and while acknowledging the practical challenges in undertaking this research, it is nevertheless important to identify means by which these concerns can be addressed, and the challenges can be overcome, in order to undertake research of this significance. And the quotes included on the slide reflect the importance of facilitating children and young people's autonomy and capacity to participate and the perceived benefits on their part of engaging in this research.

The richness of the insights and experiences of these children and young people, their maturity and their resilience, and the appreciation they expressed at having been heard, will hopefully support the clearance of further research involving children and young people in the future. And as I foreshadowed at the outset of this presentation, as researchers interacting with children and young people, we can also take some guidance from what the children and young people told us in this study about effective professional practice, albeit provided in the context of what they wanted from family law system professionals.

Children and young people told us that effective professional practice involved employing child inclusive approaches that provided them with the opportunity to participate. It involved genuine and effective listeners who provided the space for children and young people to speak and to process events, who took the time to develop trust and rapport with them, and who were approachable and empathetic, and these professionals also kept children and young people informed and supported them to be accurately heard. While directed at family law system professionals, I'm sure that you can see that these findings can also inform our practices and approaches when engaging with children and young people as researchers, and in the development of protocols to guide this engagement. And I like the way that the participant that we gave the pseudonym Savanna put it quite simply. She called for adults to be really down to earth, to put themselves in children and young people's shoes, and to be more human beings. And I'm going to end this presentation with details of our Children and Young People in Separated Families Study, which is available for download. As you can see, the reference is on the slide here. That's available for download on our institute's website, together with a child-friendly summary of our findings. And I'd like to acknowledge and thank the Australian Attorney‑General's Department; the Institute executive and communications teams; my co-authors, Edward Dunstan, Dinika Roopani and Jessie Dunstan; the many service providers who assisted with the recruitment process; and, most importantly, the children and young people and their families, without whom this important research would not have been possible. Thank you.

(Video recording complete)

ANNE HOLLONDS: That was absolutely fantastic, Rachel. And so rich, so much to digest. Lesley, welcome. And thank you for joining us on your last day in your role at NAPCAN, and congratulations on your retirement. And your role here today is to share some of your reflections on this issue, and on what you've heard from Rachel as well. So over to you, Lesley.

LESLEY TAYLOR: Thank you so much, Anne. What a great opportunity. And so incredibly timely, I suppose, as I have been doing a lot of reflecting about the many changes that have occurred since I started in the Child Protection sector in the mid-80s. So my first experience of how research impacts on practice was quite dramatic, really. I had been part of a system where I was involved in a lot of Child Protection investigations, as well as doing fostering assessments and adoptions. So I was part of the closed adoptions system, where there was absolute secrecy kept between the birth family and the adoptive family, and that was considered to be absolutely in the best interests of that child and of that new family forming. And they had been taking place since the 20s. But really it was in the late 70s that research into the practices and the impact, the incredibly negative impact that closed adoptions had on those children, was what started changing practices across Australia. Sadly, it wasn't until the mid to late-80s, in fact, it was - well, I started in '85, so I know it was after the mid-80s - I remember a session where we sat down and we were exposed to this research that said that everything we had been doing had been causing significant harm to children, and we heard their voices, there were film clips of children and young people as adults talking about the trauma they had experienced, and the desperation that they had not knowing who their family was, so for me, I learned the hard way that I had actually not - been part of a system that was not doing the right thing by children. And it was that research, that powerful research, such as what's happening with this research of Rachel's today, that can change practice of the future, that once we know that things have to change, and have to be done differently, and we know better about how that impacts on children, by listening to them, practice must change. And the practice did change. It changed very dramatically. But it gave me a desperate desire to constantly be aware of research that was changing the way we had to learn things. So I've always had, since then, a real openness to explore research that involves children and that where we hear children's voices. And I had some opportunities in my work across the Northern Territory to be part of systems where the services are based on providing services to adults, even though children are part of it. So, for example, in crisis accommodation services, our desire has always been that children are entitled to the same level of support and recognition as adults in those services, and that hasn't always been the case. So that's a journey that we still need to continue to take. And I think that Rachel's work in the courts provides us with a clear direction of change that has to happen into the future, so I'm very excited to be able to support that change for practitioners.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Thanks, Lesley. Again, so much to dissect there in terms of how we need to change our practice. And I guess, you know, what you're reflecting on, as well as Rachel's presentation, really goes to how much more we have to do. How much we have to learn here. So we might bring Rachel back now, and just a reminder to everyone - Hi, Rachel. Thanks for your presentation.

RACHEL CARSON: Hi there. Thank you, Anne; thank you, Lesley.

ANNE HOLLONDS: A reminder to everyone that the chat line is open, so if you'd like to post your questions, try to keep them concise, and we'll get to as many of them as we can. So I just wanted to - there's so much we could go to, in what both of you have said, but I'd just like to go, Rachel, to that piece about how you - I mean can I just ask you, was this the first time you had done research actually going to the voices of children? Was this your first - oh, no, you did the Independent Children's Lawyers one as well, in 2014. Was that your first one?

RACHEL CARSON: No, prior to commencing AIFS I worked on research at the University of Melbourne, which was also partnered, actually, with Griffith University and the Institute, back in 2001, investigating children's contact services; and subsequent to that also research relating to post-separation arrangements for children and young people, also through the Melbourne Law School as well, so I had had some exposure to, and in the case of the latter project, looking at children's post‑separation experiences, some direct engagement with children and young people and interviewing children and young people prior to coming to the Institute and working on the Independent Children's Lawyers Study.

ANNE HOLLONDS: So you've actually had - you've been doing this kind of thing, you know, a little bit - well, throughout your career, by the sounds of it. But I wanted to ask you, really, like, you know, was there something that you learned from this project that was a bit of a, you know, a new learning, whether it was from your preparation with the psychologists that you did, you and your colleagues, or just in the findings, was there something new for you that made you - that really stood out for you that you learned from this experience as a researcher?

RACHEL CARSON: Yes. Look, I never cease to be amazed at the maturity and wisdom of children and young people. And I think it behoves us to engage with them, to learn from their experiences. They're so astute and engaged, and they have so much to say, and so much that we can learn from them. I never cease to be amazed by that, no matter how many times I engage with children and young people, whether that's informally and through the research process in a more formal way. I think it's - what was so fundamentally clear to me from this research project, and also from our study involving independent children's lawyers - well, assessing independent children's lawyers, was that it's so important for the best interests of children and young people that we provide them with the opportunity to safely and effectively participate in this process, so that we can learn from their experiences. But it's also important from their perspective, for their own agency and their own self-efficacy, to have their views heard, to be taken seriously, and for them to inform the process. So I think those are key learnings that I took.

And I think from a practice perspective, I think I'm always learning, as a researcher, and always improving in terms of my engagement with children and young people. It's always good to have a refresher with some training, particularly, you know, our training and academic research in this field is constantly growing, so it's always important to keep informed and to refresh our knowledge through the academic literature, but also through resources that are available from numerous organisations, child-safe organisations. But also to refresh our skills as interviewers, and in terms of engaging with children and young people, so that we have a toolkit of techniques to help us to engage with the variety of children that we're going to engage with, because every child is different, and we need to learn to modify the way we engage with children, taking from their cues. So we need to listen to their cues. And I think that engaging in training and refresher training every time that I embark on research of this nature is pivotal and important. And it reminds me about how important it is to monitor the background settings of the interview.

The settings with the room of the interview that you're having. So what's going on around the child in the venue that we're engaging with them, what's happening in this room, what's the feeling like in this room, how can I make them feel comfortable. And also to be attuned to hear their cues, and to feed off that and to respond appropriately.

ANNE HOLLONDS: And I guess just a reflection from me, this piece of research has certainly stood out for me at my five years at AIFS as being one of the most powerful that I've read, and just the core message of what the children said, that they didn't want to be kept in the dark.

RACHEL CARSON: Yeah I think certainly that's absolutely correct Anne. I think that despite the fact that all of the children that we interviewed were in different circumstances and there was some who were in quite comfortable and pleasant circumstances. And those who were in quite high risk circumstances. But what they told us about effective professional practice, it resonates with me still today. Because there's some very simple things that they want from engaging with professionals. You know, simple things like being a genuine and good listener. Being conscious of giving them space and time to process what's going on. And to engage in the decision-making process or in the research process. Things like just having a feedback loop and being kept informed about what's going on. These are really simple things. And despite the variety of circumstances from which these children came. These were messages that we consistently heard. And that's why we're in a position to identify those principles that I outlined at the end of my presentation about effective professional practice that I think we can all learn from.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Yes and Lesley, I mean when you think about it there, they're actually in a way, they're relatively straight forward these principles aren't they? I mean they are just part of a respectful process with another human being. Why do you think we get it so wrong a lot of the time? Or we don't even try hard enough to listen to children?

LESLEY TAYLOR: I think that sometimes we just forget. I think that sometimes we're just so busy as practitioners to do a job, that we forget to treat children with the respect and dignity that they deserve and that they're entitled to. And Rachel's work is just so, it's so exciting to see, you know things that you read about. So we would've all, you know, we've all been so heavily influenced by having certainly the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child Rachel which you mentioned too. And I'm going Article 12 just screams out, you know that children have a right to give their opinion. This is not something new. This is something that's been enshrined in International Law.

And that our wonderful Children's Commissioners across Australia and our National Children's Commissioners help to highlight the critical nature of listening to children's voices. And what Rachel's research has done has shown us the impact of ignoring those children. Of not allowing them a say in things that impact on the rest of their lives. And then obviously Rachel, I've just realised as I was listening to your presentation again is that Article 40 which is the right to legal help and fair treatment in the justice system. That respects your rights, I'm going, you know this is exactly what we're talking about. This is not new ideas. But we have to make it relevant for today. And it is relevant for today and it's very relevant for tomorrow.

ANNE HOLLONDS: M'hmm it is indeed. So I'm going to go to some of the questions that we've received at this stage. So a couple of them here about the specifics about the research Rachel. There's a question about - well I can give you both questions. 'How long was the process to obtain Human Research Ethics approval?' Because you explained the process but I think someone wants to know how long did that take? And the second question was, 'Did you need consent from both parents?'

RACHEL CARSON: Okay it was quite a protracted process to obtain the ethical clearances for this project. We made our application in June of 2016 and we received our clearance in September of that year. So quite a significant period of time. And it did involve - this is from our premier ethical clearance body, the institute's ethical clearance committee. So that was our primary committee that we, we approached and received our clearance from. So it was an engaged process of some months by which we engaged with the committee to address their concerns. We modified our protocols, we modified our methodology and our sampling frame to meet their concerns. We then also had a number of other ethics committees that we needed to engage with in order for organisations to support us in our recruitment processes. They were ongoing so there were, I think it was probably about March or so of the following year that we had, that we had received the additional ethical clearances. So quite a protracted process. And forgive me, I've forgotten the second question?

ANNE HOLLONDS: The second one was about whether you got consent from both parents?

RACHEL CARSON: Okay that's right. No, we - our ethical clearance provided us with the opportunity to seek consent from the primary - the parent who had the primary responsibility for the child. So we were not required to obtain consent from both parents. But the parent who had the primary responsibility for the care, welfare and development of the child. That was the parent that we had to seek the consent from.

ANNE HOLLONDS: M'hmm thanks, Rachel. Now a question for Lesley. Lesley 'What is some of the practices we engage in today, that may in fact be detrimental to children? Or areas where the evidence is weak, so it's hard to tell?' Can you think of any examples of where you would be, you know, concerned that our practices are not supported by evidence, that might detrimental?

LESLEY TAYLOR: So, just some examples about some, some areas that can - I mean I think we can all do a lot better in terms of engaging children and young people in a range of circumstances that - on matters that impact on them. But an example would've been the - some time ago I was working with drug and alcohol based services. And there was a decision to change from residential care to home-based care. Obviously, this is all way pre-covid. And the decision was made for those services, which are adult based services. They don't provide services to children, they don't pretend to provide services to children. However, their clients are parents or carers of children. And so, when they make those decisions to change from a residential facility to home-based, then those people will - there is an incredible increase of risk to those, those people undertaking detox in their home where children were present. So it's just the need to be constantly mindful of how decisions impact on children where they're not even the obvious client. They're not even the obvious part of that decision making. But if you don't look for children you won't see them because they rely on the adults around them to empower them.

ANNE HOLLONDS: That's right, so we're not just talking about what we call, child and family services here. We're talking about adult-targeted services when often adults will have a dependent child they're responsible for. And there is often that blindness to seeing the children in that situation. A really good point Lesley, that, that's great. I'm gonna try and get just - we've got quite a few questions here so I'm gonna try and get to a few of them before we finish. Back to the research for you Rachel. So I'll give you two at a time. So, 'What changes have occurred in the family law system as a result of the research?' That's a tough question. And the second one is, 'Did the children get feedback on how their research-informed any change?' So two different questions.

RACHEL CARSON: M'hmm, well at this point it's difficult to pinpoint, although we've submitted our final report to the Attorney Generals department it's difficult for me to pinpoint particular changes that have arisen out of this research specifically. But it's - I know that it is informing ongoing consideration of matters in this field. And in terms of a positive change in this space, not necessarily directly related to this work. But one of the issues that was identified in the context of this research and the body of family law research that the institute has engaged in over many years now. Is the issue associated with risk assessment and the appropriate identification assessment and response to risks associated with domestic and family violence and other safety concerns, child abuse et cetera.

So one positive change in this space is that the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia have recently initiated the Lighthouse Project. Which is a risk screening and triage pilot in the courts. And so we're hopeful that this will be a means by which we see some improvements in terms of risk screening. Early identification about risk clients to support better decision making in due course. And there's also a measure by which the high-risk cases can be referred to a dedicated court list as well in this context too. So improved case management approaches for these cases will be important to and these were issues that all emerged for the higher risk children and young people who were participating in our study. So it's a little difficult for me to pinpoint particular changes at this point.

We certainly know that our earlier Independent Children's Lawyers Study informed practice developments in that field. And we continue to hear about those today in terms of the training of independent children's lawyers. In terms of feedback to children and young people, we did actually prepare a child-friendly summary of our research. So that they could see the results of their work and feel I think, a sense of camaraderie with their - the other children and young people who participated. To see that their experiences are shared by others. And to see that arising from their participation, we have principles which have been developed from their data, their interview data. And that this will go on to inform research. So we indicated that our report was submitted. I think it's a matter of wait and see and hopefully we'll be in a position to pinpoint more changes in this space.

ANNE HOLLONDS: And, and just on the changes to the family law system as a result, so I guess I'll just put in there that, every time we have a chance we're using the findings in our submissions, to every family law system enquiry. And of course, we know there's many, so we keep - - -

RACHEL CARSON: Absolutely.

ANNE HOLLONDS: - - - plugging at it don't; we Rachel to try and - - -

RACHEL CARSON: Absolutely.

ANNE HOLLONDS: - - - get these issues heard.

RACHEL CARSON: Absolutely.

ANNE HOLLONDS: And that how the system is reformed and designed to be more responsive to the needs of children.

RACHEL CARSON: Absolutely and look I - - -

ANNE HOLLONDS: We keep trying.

RACHEL CARSON: That's right and I can say that this, the substantive findings of this research which unfortunately I wasn't in a position to talk about in much depth today. But the body of substantive findings from this research have been disseminated very widely including to the courts. And government agencies and departments and also by way of evidence to the current enquiries that are before the Parliament at the moment. So I can reassure people that the message has been communicated directly to the Parliament. And directly to the courts.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Okay here's a question about children for both of you. 'So many children of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds have been conditioned to be seen and not heard since this is sometimes a cultural norm. Is there a particular practice to enhance engagement with children in this context?'

LESLEY TAYLOR: Rachel I'm sure you have a million things to contribute to this sector but, for me learning from Rachel's research and just my work in promoting rights and interests of children wherever you can. Is that being open, being kind and being respectful. And providing a safe environment for children to be able to talk to you. And for you to give them time for them to be able to reflect and answer, providing opportunities for translation can make a huge difference in anyone's understanding obviously. But it is about providing additional time in a much plainer language than perhaps might be used in court systems so that children can have every opportunity to understand what's being said to them.

RACHEL CARSON: M'hmm I would reflect on the training and academic research in this field as providing guidance for me in this space. And I'm thinking particularly about the variety of skills that we learn. To develop rapport and to build up trust with the children and young people that we're engaging with. And listening to those individual queues that we gauge from those children. But also thinking about, my colleague Dr Briony Horsfall describes it as providing children the scaffolding. Where we support individual children and young people to participate. And you know, it may be that we tailor these in a particular way for children who are more reticent to be involved. You know, we, we think about ways that will make them feel more comfortable and more at ease. And if they're perhaps less assured about communicating their views we might repeat back to them, what we think that they're saying. And that gives them the encouragement to reiterate their position. Kay Tisdall in the UK calls it the thickening of agency. And she talks about this in the context of children and young people who are exposed to domestic and family violence and child abuse. But I think it applies equally in terms of children and young people who are from backgrounds that may be exposed to those views and norms. Thickening their agency, support them to accurately and effectively participate. I mean that that's what I would draw on in that context.

ANNE HOLLONDS: M'hmm and that's kind of relevant to the next question I'll go to. 'What does it do for younger children under eight years old? I had a case when I was advocating for their views and wishes yet Child Protection did not listen or even try to support their views. Child Protection kept reporting that they advocate for what they believe is in the best interests of the child when they're under 10.' So, in other words, they're not actually going to the child themselves. How do we change this practice from practitioners? Should we be changing it? Either of you?

RACHEL CARSON: Well I'm happy to, unfortunately, I haven't engaged with children under 10. Unfortunately, we haven't been in a position to gain ethical clearance to interview children under that age group. But I'm minded of the work of Sharon Sparks and her colleagues who have been evaluating the HIPPY early learning program by the Brotherhood of St Lawrence. And they embraced a multitude of approaches to engage with the younger children. So these are children who are pre-primary school and early primary school who are engaging in the HIPPY early learning program. And they embarked on a national listening tour and they - I've heard Sharon talk about various activities that they do to enable young children of that age to have a say. So, for example, there was drawing activities there was an activity whereby they could take photographs to express their position. There was an activity where they engaged with a puppet and they spoke - it was not threatening to speak to a puppet for example. I think there are many creative ways that can enable us to support younger children to safely and effectively participate. Although I would hasten to add that I'm not an expert with children under, under that age. But I think there is important work in this field. And I think certainly engaging in - engaging with those academics and practitioners who are working with children in those early age groups would be of benefit to learn from their experiences. And to learn what the evidence-based research is suggesting about our engagement with children of that age.

LESLEY TAYLOR: Before I go - - -

ANNE HOLLONDS: And I just - sorry Lesley I was just going to say, just related to that Rachel, before I go to Lesley is, someone's asking 'Why were there not children below that age in this research you spoke about?' Could you just quickly go to that before I go back to Lesley - - -

RACHEL CARSON: That's all right, that's right, so the ethical clearance that we were provided with enabled us to speak with children as young as 10 to 11. But we had to wait 12 months from the date of their matter settling to engage with them. It was difficult enough to recruit children of that age group.

ANNE HOLLONDS: M'hmm.

RACHEL CARSON: If I was making an application to do this research again, I, I would encourage the ethics committee to consider younger age group. Because as I mentioned in the presentation, we had a substantial proportion of people, 41 people who - were young people who potentially could've participated. But fell short of that age range.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Yes.

RACHEL CARSON: So I think it's important, and I feel confident that the tenor of public mood in this space and what - and the knowledge that we now have in this space. And particularly with the National Principles, I'm, I'm confident that research with children younger could, could be undertaken.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Yep, sorry Lesley, your comment?

LESLEY TAYLOR: It was just on a more broad note I was thinking about the tools and resources that can help everyone who has contact with children and young people. And what practical ways that they can better engage in conversations about children's safety or about how to encourage them to have a say in these matters that affect them. I draw you to the Catholic University and the 'Kids R Us' toolkit which is a massive and resource rich place where you can access a lot of materials and a lot of information. And very practical tools that help children engage with your conversation and for you to recognise the needs that children have. And how to create those safe environments for them to talk.

ANNE HOLLONDS: M'hmm and thank you Lesley. And we do have some resources listed in the chat I believe. And it really goes to - and I think this might be the issue that we finish up on now, because we're running out of time. But that we've talked about actually requires quite a lot of skill. And to do it safely and with good outcomes for the children, we need to ensure that we're skilled in knowing what - how to do this. And it's not just the individuals, the practitioners or the researchers but it's the organisations that they work for need to have a child safe culture. Is there anything that you would like to say, either of you about that as we're wrapping up now?

RACHEL CARSON: M'hmm, yes I certainly would encourage those who are undertaking this research to ensure that they do have training in child inclusive and child safe practices. To foster the development of those skills that enable you to safely engage with children and young people. And also I think familiarising yourself as Lesley has said with these key resources. We've talked about the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The National Principles, we've also spoken about, the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations. The State and Territory versions of those are also available. As you said Anne, looking to the - if you have guidance from your own organisation and a child-safe policy within your own organisation, look into that. And I think also avail yourself of that Ethics Committee if you one at your organisation or one that you can apply to. And being guided by the National Health and Medical Research councils, national statement on ethical conduct. But also thinking about the skills that you can gain from your research community and your practice community by engaging with them. And availing yourself of the wealth of research in this field. There is too many to mention but there are solid materials out there that can support this engagement. And I can think of one or two off the top of my head.

The Children's Bioethics Centre at the Murdock Children's Research Institute has produced some good publications in terms of helping understand how to effectively gain informed consent. But I think tapping into your network as well is very important and engaging with other organisations to learn from their experiences of engaging in this space. And I'll hand over to you Lesley, I'm conscious of the time.

LESLEY TAYLOR: Thank you.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Comments Lesley?

LESLEY TAYLOR: The only thing that I would add to that is that, the children in your research Rachel were saying, they were not complex things that those children did require of us though. There certainly is a skill set that we must be mindful of and that we must ensure that we cause no harm. So you must have some responsibility for your own behaviour and your own actions and your own skills that you bring to any work with children. But those children were asking for us to be kind. Those children and young people were asking for us to just show them, just basic respect really. And to treat them as if they're important people and that they did have something to contribute to that conversation about their future. So I think we should - - -

ANNE HOLLONDS: Yeah well - - -

LESLEY TAYLOR: - - - treat children like the nieces and nephews of a close friend whenever we are talking with those children and young people.

ANNE HOLLONDS: Just be kind that's very, very good thank you. Look and I'll just reflect in closing this has been a fantastic discussion. I'm hoping it's one of many that we'll have in the months and years ahead about this important issue. As we've noted it requires a lot of skill to safely involve children, to genuinely listen and to safely hear their voices. But it's essential. Not only for understanding what matters most to children and what they are experiencing. But also to afford them the respect and opportunity to be heard which is of course their right. And I guess for me you know, one of the things that I've learnt today is that it's the 'How' as well as the 'What.' So it's the how we do it. The relationship that we build with the children, the process of the conversation, the follow-up, you know the respect that we show every step of the way. All of these things are incredibly important. As well as the 'What' they say. That children will each have their own unique experience to share. And it's often very different to what the adults who are caring for them would say, or us as professionals. And so it really is worth working at this to get that very unique perspective. And to give them that respectful process. And you know, these are skills that we should all be trying to acquire and keep practising.

So look, on behalf of everyone participating, thank you so much Lesley Taylor and Rachel Carson for your wonderful contributions today. For sharing all of your wisdom and your knowledge. And thank you to everyone who's joined us for this webinar today. Thank you for the AIFS team behind the scenes who've done a fabulous job. Thank you everybody, thank you again and goodbye.

RACHEL CARSON: Thank you.

LESLEY TAYLOR: Thanks.

WEBINAR CONCLUDED

IMPORTANT INFORMATION - PLEASE READ

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The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action.

Slide outline: Why is it important to hear the voices of children and young people in research?

1. Why is it important to hear the voices of children and young people in research?
Experiences from the AIFS Children and Young People in Separated Families Study - Webinar 15 September 2020

Pre-panel discussion paper:  Dr Rachel Carson, Senior Research Fellow, AIFS

2. Disclaimer

The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and may not reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Family Studies or the Australian Attorney-General’s Department.

3. Overview

Why is it important to hear the voices of children and young people in the research?

  • Why was it important for the Children and Young People In Separated Families project?

What did we learn?

  • Discussion of the challenges in undertaking this research
  • Feedback from children and young people about engaging in the research and their insight into effective professional practice

4. Why is it important to listen to children and young people in research?

Why is it important to hear the voices of children and young people in the research?

  • Informed decision-making
  • Opportunity to participate is consistent with the best interests, sense of agency and self-efficacy of children and young people
  • See United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 12) and National Principles for Child Safe Organisations

5. Why was it important for the Children and Young People In Separated Families project?

Aim of the research

  • To investigate the experiences and needs of children and young people whose parents had separated and had accessed family law system services
  • Focus on children and young people’s experiences of  these services and how the family law system may better meet their needs

Gap in the existing body of research

  • To investigate this issue via data collected directly from children and young people

6. Outline of the research project 

Purposive sample of families who

  • had engaged with family law system
  • had resolved their family law matters
  • were recruited via legal and non-legal service providers 

In depth interviews with children and young people (n = 61)

  • aged 10–17 years
  • structured and semi-structured questions

7. Challenges: Research design and ethical clearances

Key consideration underpinning the research design: 

to value and   empower children and young people to have a voice about their experiences of the Australian family law system services and to provide a platform for their suggestions of how to best support young people experiencing parental separation:

  • informed consent
  • comprehensive research and ethical protocols

8. Challenges: Research design and ethical clearances part 2

  • AIFS Human Research Ethics Committee provided primary ethical review
  • Applications for ethical clearance required from five other HRECs

Complex process obtaining ethics clearances from six committees reflect the cautious approach to the conduct of research directly involving children and young people in the family law context

9. Challenges: Recruitment

Multiple and protracted recruitment strategies including:

  • contacting over 500 legal and non-legal organisations and liaising closely with over 70 of these organisations to circulate recruitment materials
  • study recruitment materials shared via websites, social media accounts, e-newsletters, as well as face-to-face
  • targeted advertising through Facebook

10. Challenges: Recruitment part 2

Complex sampling frame in place pursuant to HREC clearances

  • detailed screening protocols were developed
  • screening process was adapted to the circumstances of the family and their contact with family law system services

11. Challenges: Conduct of the research pursuant to protocols

Implementation of research pursuant to research and ethical protocols:

  • interview procedures, protecting and maintaining participant confidentiality, privacy and safety
  • responding to distress, reporting obligations and offering referrals to support services

12. Challenges: Conduct of the research and implementation of safety protocols

Dual interviewer approach, researchers trained in child-safe research practices

  • confirmation of informed consent prior to interview
  • monitoring interviewee response throughout interview
  • provision of information and referrals to support services
  • review and debriefing after each interview
  • HRECs kept informed of any issues or complaints

13. Feedback from children and young people about engaging in the research

“…straight up, today I’ve gotten so much out that I’ve just wanted to get out for so long ... it’s one thing to tell people bits and pieces but to just whoosh it out, you know, and just like to really
just like burn it off, just, it helps.”
(Zoe, F, 12–14 years)

“I’m glad that I had this opportunity to ... help out with future, like, law things.”
(Scarlett, F, 15+ years)

14. Feedback from children and young people about engaging in the research part 2

What can we learn as researchers about ‘effective professional practice’ from the perspective of children and young people?

  • employing child-inclusive approaches
  • genuinely and effectively listening to their views and experiences
  • allowing them space to speak and to process events
  • taking the time to develop trust and rapport
  • demonstrating an approachable and empathetic manner
  • keeping them informed and supporting them to be accurately heard
  • taking both proactive and protective approaches

15. Quote: Savannah, 15+ years

… I know they’re like professionals and they’re really, like – I don’t know, when I think of the court, I think like uptight, but like I just think they need to be really down to earth. 

You know, need to put themselves in our shoes a bit more. I just think, yeah, I just think they need to be more human beings. 

16. Publication available on the AIFS website

Carson, R., Dunstan, E., Roopani, D, and Dunstan, J. (2018). Children and Young People in Separated Families: Family Law Systems, Experiences and Needs. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

17. Acknowledgements

The Australian Attorney-General’s Department

The AIFS Executive and Communications Team

Co-authors of the AIFS research report, the many and varied organisations assisting us with recruitment, and most importantly, the children and young people and parents who participated in our research.

This webinar was held on Tuesday 15 September 2020.

This webinar is of interest to child and family welfare researchers and practitioners. It discussed the importance of including children and young people in research to ensure that evidence gathered is relevant for policy and practice that affects children and young people’s lives.

Anne Hollonds, AIFS Director and newly appointed National Children’s Commissioner, facilitated a discussion between AIFS Senior Research Fellow Dr Rachel Carson and Outgoing National Manger of Prevention Strategies for NAPCAN Lesley Taylor.

Dr Carson presented on the research process used for the Children and Young People in Separated Families study. Ms Taylor provided insights from her career across the child welfare sector.

Engaging with children and young people in research is not without its challenges. Securing the required ethical clearances may present issues where there are particular sensitivities relating to children’s involvement in the research. Researchers, like practitioners, need to be trained in child-safe research practices, and have the skills to provide children and young people the opportunity to give informed consent to participate.

Recruiting children and young people can also present challenges. However, these challenges do not detract from the need for research with children and young people and should not discourage researchers from undertaking this important research endeavour. When researchers and practitioners share insights, we build knowledge and capacity within the child and family welfare sector.

Related resources

  • Kids Central Toolkit
    The Kids Central Toolkit aims to provide workers and services with information, resources and tools to use child-centred approaches in their work with children, young people and families.
  • Young and Resilient Research Centre
    The Young and Resilient Research Centre embraces an integrated mode of research and development, education, training and enterprise to research and develop technology-based products, services and policies that strengthen the resilience of young people and their communities, enabling them to live well and participate fully in social and economic life.

Acknowledgements

This webinar is being hosted in collaboration with NAPCAN in support of National Child Protection Week, 1–7 September 2020.

National Association for Prevention of Child abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN)

Related topics

About the presenters

Anne Hollonds is the Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and newly appointed National Children's Commissioner. She will start this new role in November 2020.

Rachel Carson

Dr Rachel Carson is a socio-legal researcher with expertise in family law and qualitative research about family law disputes. After practising as a family lawyer, Rachel worked as a researcher in family law at the Melbourne Law School (University of Melbourne) and was awarded a Melbourne Research Scholarship to undertake her PhD in this field of research at the University of Melbourne.

Since joining the Family Law and Family Violence team at the Australian Institute of Family Studies in June 2012, Rachel has worked on a range of significant family law research projects, including the Independent Children’s Lawyer Study and the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments Project. Rachel was the lead researcher for the recently completed Children and Young People in Separated Families: Family Law System Experiences and Needs project, and the Direct Cross-examination in Family Law Matters Study.

Lesley Taylor

Lesley Taylor has dedicated her life to protecting children. After working in the frontline of Northern Territory’s child protection for more than 10 years, in 2000 she founded NT’s first sole child abuse prevention agency – the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN). She is also NAPCAN’s National Manager, Prevention Strategies. Lesley’s work has been instrumental in moving the focus from simply dealing with child abuse after it’s occurred to helping prevent it in the first place. She does this by helping communities engage with children’s wellbeing, helping create child-friendly and child-safe communities. Lesley’s simple, powerful message is that each of us can play a role in preventing child abuse.