Putting the Public First – Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts about HOW we can begin to put the public first in justice design.

In the family justice system we rarely hear the voices of children who are experiencing the separation or divorce of their parents.  Despite the legal principle that the “best interests of the child” should come first, this is mostly how others (parents, lawyers, judges) see and interpret what is in the child’s best interest.  While there are some notable examples to the contrary (“voice of the child reports”, the “Hear the Child Society” etc.), the child rarely gets a chance to express their own views about things that are fundamental to their lives – where they will live and go to school, how much time they will spend with each parent etc.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the ChildAs recently reported, Canada has a ways to go to implement fully the CRC’s bundle of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to support children’s optimal development and wellbeing.  One key right is the child’s right to express views freely in all matters affecting the child (Article 12).

The Lab believes that if we are truly committed to putting families first in family justice reform, then the reform itself has to include the children.  So exactly how can we engagement effectively with children to ensure that justice is designed to give them a voice?  We can certainly take some clues from creative programs in other jurisdictions.

In New Zealand, for example, the Upper Hutt Community Youth Trust takes seriously its obligation to meaningfully engage young people.  One of its principles is “youth development is triggered when young people fully participate.  Young people need to be given opportunities to have greater control over what happens to them, through seeking their advice, participation and engagement.”  But they didn’t stop at principles, they gathered young people together to find out what this meant to them and how the Trust could make it happen.  Here are some insights from their blog post summarizing their learning via our friends at Lifehack:

  1. Reject tokenism:  “If we truly want to engage young people we have to believe that it’s the best for the young people and our work – not just a token attempt to satisfy ourselves that our ideas are best.”
  2. Just walk across the room:  Get to know a young person, listening to who they are, what they like and how they would like to participate.
  3. Be prepared for your ego to take a hit:  “They might crush our idea in an instant, but come up with one that will better impact the young people you are ultimately working with.  We have to be prepared to let our ideas die.”
  4. Survey / Evaluate with young people:  Monitor how things are going along the way and make changes to suite the needs of the young people.
  5. Involve young people in the full process from start to finish:  “From our experience the journey of having young people involved in the full process from start to finish is not easy.  It’s hard. Things don’t always go to (our) plan.  Things get missed, and get messy, but the outcome for the young people and our own learnings is just about always best.”
  6. Prepare for it to be messy / hard work:  “It is definitely the slower and more challenging route, but always more meaningful.”
  7. Create safe places for GENUINE youth engagement:  “Young people’s engagement will change the course of your project.”  Allow them to participate, make mistakes and learn.

Wow.  Thank you Upper Hutt Community Youth Trust for your wise words.  Read the entire post – there are lots of great examples and candid thoughts.

The Lab continues to prepare for the Youth Voices Initiative workshop on January 22, 2017, which is our attempt to put these important principles into action.  We are starting with the voices of youth who have experienced their parents’ separation or divorce.  It is good to read and re-read these principles and to keep moving forward.

Kari D. Boyle

Coordinator, BC Family Justice Innovation Lab