Just shut up and let them talk’: Participation, power and the parent voice in the child protection system
Participatory practice is acknowledged as increasingly important in empowering families in the decision-making process. Yet parental participation in child protection and welfare settings remains a complex and multi-dimensional practice, dependent on a range of individual factors including willingness to engage; understanding of need, as well as system factors including power dynamics and resource constraints (Darlington et al., 2010). Parents can feel ‘powerless and helpless’ when not involved in decision-making processes (Hardy & Darlington, 2008). In addition to practice wisdom emerging from literature in the field, this paper examines the findings of a research study commissioned by Tusla (the Irish, national, statutory Child and Family Agency) on parental experiences of Child Protection Conferences (CPCs) in Counties Galway and Roscommon. Analysis of findings of a series of qualitative interviews (n=14) with parents who have attended CPCs, found that parents in the study felt unprepared for CPC, unclear of the implications for their families and felt marginalised by the CPC process. While many parents recognised their right to reply, most reported wanting to appear cooperative. The paper proposes recommendations including the development of a protocol for CPC preparation; participation supports for parents to ensure their voices are heard throughout the process; debriefing as a structured phase of the CPC; and continuous intensive engagement with parents post-CPC.