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“I want to go back to Afghanistan, and I want to be a doctor there, but a doctor that people can afford to pay for”

This answer, given to me when I was speaking about the future with one of the asylum seeking children I work with at my social work team, shocked me a bit. It made sense to me that a child would want to be reunited with his family at some point in his/her home country, but this boy’s story was quite different. This statement was coming from a boy who had experienced intense violence in his country of origin and had finally found a safe haven here in Ireland. He had no family left in Afghanistan, his only tie to the place being the years of his childhood he had spent there.

As the conversation progressed, he explained, “I am happy in Ireland, but my heart is still sad.” In his mind, his time in Ireland so far has been a blessing, but it did nothing to erase what had happened to him in the past. A fresh start was nice, but forgetting about his past, which included his family, friends, and so much more than the violence and exploitation near the end of his time there, was not an option. For him to truly reconcile with his past, he felt he needed to return to Afghanistan in the future, whether it be safe or not, to make as much of a difference as he could. His life may be much better here in Dublin than it was at the time he was forced to leave, but his connection with Afghanistan still stands and will continue to stand for the remainder of his life.

This conversation is one of many that reminded me of the dangers of placing a child in a foster family and simply giving him/her a “fresh start.” Yes, most of the time a fresh start is much needed, but the past cannot be ignored. Although it is incredibly important for a child to be focused on adapting to Ireland, a strong effort should always be made to understand a child’s individual circumstances and desires.

Across Europe, child care has focused mainly on adaptation and transitioning a child to a new life. A child’s situation is generally assessed and future determined independent of input from the child, just assuming the best interest of the child is to start over or following a set of legislation that is said to guide a child’s best interest. The social work team for separated children I work for here in Ireland, though, approaches the matter of best interest a little differently. We work with each child in our service directly to develop a plan for their future with a strong emphasis on the child’s wishes for the future and the specific path a child’s life has followed to this point. For example, some children are ready to apply for asylum as soon as they arrive, while others are not yet ready to navigate the process. Likewise, some young people can handle living on their own as soon as they turn eighteen, but others require additional support. In regards to family reunification, some children may want to contact their families and reunite as soon as possible, others may worry contacting their families would put them or their family at risk, and still some others aren’t at all interested in reconnecting. Every child has a unique story and has faced different circumstances, which must be taken into account when a child’s future is mapped out.

Our approach, from what I’ve seen so far during my time here, seems to be the only way to truly determine a child’s best interest. A child’s thoughts about the future are the most important part of a best interest determination, but a part that is so often ignored. Children have such different desires for the future and have faced such different circumstances that it is impossible for a social worker to know what is best from guidelines in legislation or their own experience. I’ve learned that if the goal is maximizing the efficacy and feasibility of a child’s care plan for the future, the child’s voice must be given as much weight as possible given his/her age and maturity level.

Most of the time, a child is here in the first place as a result of choicelessness, and there’s no reason to continue the trend. How can you expect a child to go on live a happy, fulfilling life if he/she has no say in determining the direction his/her life and his/her care plan is not unique to his/her individual circumstances? When determining whether a child is ready to apply for asylum, move to independent accommodation, or reunify with his/her family, the child’s voice and unique experiences must be given primary consideration.