As the latest AIHW data reveals almost one in four people accessing homelessness services in Victoria are children under 18, we look to the Statewide Children’s Resource Program and their See, Listen and Respond guide for engaging with children experiencing homelessness and family violence.
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Engaging with children in practice
The hidden nature of trauma, homelessness, and family violence means children won’t necessarily open up about these things easily. Children may have held the burden of maintaining ‘secrets’ for a long time and will feel guilt around certain disclosures, so they should be allowed to share in their own way and in their own time.
Children are much more likely to express themselves or to ask for help if they feel comfortable and relaxed. Not all children express their distress and trauma through overt externalised behaviours. Many children can be withdrawn and internalise their feelings.
It’s important to notice children who access a service, to interact with them, and respond in ways that are appropriate for that child. This could include anything from physically getting down to their eye level, to making pictures and posters for children displayed at a level that makes viewing comfortable for them.
This is all part of considering the world from the child’s perspective. A caregiver might describe a situation, but the child’s own perspective may be entirely different, so it’s important to hear their point of view directly.
Practitioners won’t always answer or be able to fix everything, and it’s okay to tell the child that. Children have very good radars, so authenticity is key.
Adults are responsible for protecting children from harm and often a practitioner’s role will be assisting caregivers to do this. But sometimes this means putting the child’s best interest above everything else – including their caregiver’s wishes.
For staff who don’t sight children, for example IAP staff, it is essential to have the ‘child in mind’ when gathering information from caregivers.
Children and families accessing services due to homelessness and family violence are like to have come from unsafe and/or chaotic environments. They should come to a service where they can feel safe and have a sense of security. Practitioners should:
greet children and maintain an open and engaging manner
show an interest in the child during the appointment and refer to them in discussion with their caregiver
if possible, provide the child with something for themselves (i.e. an activity book or similar) for them to take away, to make them feel valued
make sure they know where the toilets are, how to get a drink, how long they might be there, and how to get assistance if they need it.
Practitioners should be interested and curious about the child’s experience. Ask questions, but at the same, respect their right to privacy and remember they may not feel like speaking about certain things. Keeping things friendly and engaging means the possibility for future dialogue remains open.
Children should feel calm and welcomed into an environment that tells them something about their importance in the world. Agencies should make sure they offer a comfortable and ‘child-friendly’ space. Practitioners should walk through their service from the front door all the way through to where a child might journey and consider:
what does that tell you about how you might feel in that space as a small child?
are objects of danger kept out of harms reach?
are there child-friendly art works, pictures and resources available to acknowledge the importance of children in this building?
is there a quiet, separate space where the child can be alone if necessary? If there is no separate area, consider setting up a tipi in a room or a blanket over a chair in the corner.
is the service well-resourced to respond to children of a range of ages? This could include puzzle or colouring activities, developmental toys, blocks, lego, or mindfulness apps on iPads.
It’s best practice to include children in decisions about the service, for example room design and layout, resources and toys. Practitioners can ask the child how they feel about the room, what they would like to see, or which colours they prefer.
Resources for engaging with children in practice
Innovative Resources have a range of tools for practitioners to use with children of various ages. Sometimes it is easier to introduce tools early on, and build up their use.
The Australian Human Rights Commission produce a child friendly ‘Child’s Rights’ poster that should be displayed where children are likely to be at a height suitable to them.
This resource was developed by the Statewide Children’s Resource Program and reproduced with their permission. For more resources, go to the See, Listen and Respond guide to engaging with children experiencing homelessness and family violence or request a hard copy.