Sheila Ozeer, Independent Family Group Conference Advocate

Describe your role

As an Independent Family Group Conference Advocate, I encourage and support children and young people’s views, wishes and feelings to be heard at Family Group Conferences. Referrals for a Family Group Conference mainly come from local authorities. Family Group Conferences are decision-making forums giving (extended) families the opportunity to make decisions about a child or children in the family. They usually look at possible alternative carers in the family, what support the family can offer either to the parent and the child or young person, and who can facilitate contact. Once I am allocated a case, I meet the child or young person two or three times to ensure that they understand my role as their independent advocate, the reasons why we’re having a Family Group Conference, and how the meeting is chaired and structured on the day. This includes when and where the meeting is being held and who’s coming. They also have a say on who they would like to come to the meeting.

It’s also my role to get the child or young person involved as much as possible, while at the same time respecting their decision about how much they want to be involved in regards to having their voice heard at the meeting. At times, they just want to be kept in the loop and be informed. We work together on what their views, wishes and feelings are and how they would like them to be presented at the meeting. Basically, they “use” me as their advocate however they want to! They are also given the choice on whether they want to attend the meeting or not. Being independent means that I don’t make decisions for children and families, nor do I write reports or assessments. I’m only involved with the child or young person because of the Family Group Conference, so it’s very short-term. Unless there’s a review where I’d be in touch with them again - otherwise, that is my involvement with them over.

What makes a good participation worker?

Being humble enough to recognise that we can learn from children and young people when we provide a “working in partnership” environment and the right tools to empower them to teach us. Therefore a lot of patience and resilience is required! 

What do you think are the main barriers to children and young people's participation?

Shockingly, it’s when the adults (this can include social workers) - who either don’t think it’s necessary for a child or young person’s voice to be heard or when it is heard - don’t take what’s been said seriously or into consideration. Even if a child or young person’s wishes might not come true (and most of the time they know that), they still have the right to be heard.

Sometimes, children and young people are reluctant to be involved because they’ve been let down by the adults in their lives (and it’s what they know and have experienced). They think ‘what’s the point?

What tips do you have for effective participation of children and young people?

In my experience as an independent advocate:

  • Earn their respect by treating them with respect and importance 
  • Be transparent - children and young people can see right through you a mile away within five minutes if you’re being a fake.  This also includes the information you give them - be truthful and realistic
  • Be yourself, even if that means admitting your mistakes, showing your vulnerabilities (within limits of course!) and your age!
  • Smile, laugh and have fun (where appropriate)
  • Sometimes, it’s not about “doing” but simply “being”. 

They probably have enough adults coming in and out of their lives telling them what they should or shouldn’t be doing; or being asked the same whole heap of questions again by yet another support agency. They simply want to know what’s different about you - what’s in it for THEM rather than what YOU are trying to get out of them.   

What is effective participation?

When a child or young person feels empowered to be involved in whatever way, not just for the Family Group Conference but in the future as well. Effective participation is also about providing adults with an insight of what it’s like being that child or young person from their perspective. They are seen in a different new light, probably for the first time. This generates both emotions and a need for change.

One thing that would improve?

Make it compulsory that ALL children/young people are offered an independent advocate where a meeting is being held for them and about them. 

What's your favourite participation resource?

Hilary Horan - Regional FGC and Advocacy Childrens Services Manager. Hilary provides training and she inspired me to become a Family Group Conference Advocate.

Participation Works is a partnership of…
British Youth CouncilChildren's Rights Alliance for EnglandKIDSNational Council for Voluntary Youth ServicesNational Youth AgencyNCB