What is Voice? The Implementation of the Best Interests’ Standard in an Australian Child Protection Context


  • Lyndsey Plush James Cook University


Child protection, Voice, Best interests of the child, Out of home care, Anti-oppressive practice, Involuntary


This article has been written with the purpose of exploring how voice is represented in the application of the ‘best interests’ principle within child protection in Australia. It seeks to identify the connection between anti-oppressive theory and the lack of representation of voice from the families and children who are involuntarily involved with child protection agencies. In this article, I begin with a brief look at the historical use and origins of the best interests’ standard in a child protection context. It identifies the current Australian legal frameworks that utilises the best interests’ standard, the core foundations for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the historical and current implications for practice. In this article, I consider the link between the use of the best interests’ standard in describing what risk in child protection is, and subsequently how voice is then represented in practice and legal frameworks. I explore the barriers which adversely affect the ability of practitioners to invite, hear and understand the voice of those they work with. In this article, I conclude that the standard has been a consistently tokenistic, misrepresenting and, at times, self-serving mechanism. In Australia, the best interests’ standard has not represented the voices of the people who are involuntarily involved with the system and privileges the voices of those with decision-making power. I seek to highlight that the issue is not about recreating the systems within child protection, rather meaningfully engaging the voices of the families and children who are involved with it. 

Author Biography

Lyndsey Plush, James Cook University

PhD Student, James Cook University, 1 James Cook Drive, Douglas, QLD, 4811


ABSEC–NSW Child, Family and Community Peak Aboriginal Corporation. (2016). “Best Interest Principle.” https://www.absec.org.au/images/downloads/AbSec-Policy-Brief-Best-Interests-Principle.pdf

Ainsworth, F., & Hansen, P. (2011). The experience of parents of children in care: The human rights issue. Child & Youth Services, 32(1), 9–18.

Australian Institute of Family Studies. (2018). Child protection legislation. https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/australian-child-protection-legislation.

Bennett, B. (2015). “Stop deploying your white privilege on me!” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement with the Australian Association of Social Workers. Australian Social Work, 68(1), 19–31.

Charlow, A. (1987). Awarding custody: The best interests of the child and other fictions. Yale Law & Policy Review, 5(2), 267–290.

Davis, M. (2019). Family is Culture Report: Independent review of Aboriginal children in out of home care in NSW. https://familyisculture.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/726329/Family-Is-Culture-Review-Report.pdf

Dolgin, J. (1996). Why has the best interest standard survived? The historic and social context. Children’s Legal Rights Journal, 16. https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/faculty_scholarship/433.

Ferguson, H. (2007). Abused and looked after children as “moral dirt”: Child abuse and institutional care in historical perspective. Journal of Social Policy, 36, 123–139.

Ferguson, H. (2017). How children become invisible in child protection work: Findings from research into day-to-day social work practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 47(4), 1007–1023.

Firestone, G., & Weinstein, J. (2004). In the best interest of the child. Family Court Review, 42, 203–215.

Funston, L., & Herring, S. (2016). When will the stolen generations end? A qualitative critical exploration of contemporary “child protection” practices in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Sexual Abuse in Australia and New Zealand, 7(1), 51–58.

Goldstein, J., Freud, A., Solnit, AJ. (1973). Beyond the Best Interests of the Child. New York, The Free Press.

Goldstein, J., Freud, A., Burlingham, D., Solnit, AJ. (1979). Before the Best Interests of the Child. New York, The Free Press.

Goldstein, J., Freud, A., Solnit, AJ., Goldstein, S. (1986). In the Best Interests of the Child. New York, The Free Press.

Goldstein, J., Solnit, A., Goldstein, S., & Freud, A. (1998). The best interests of the child: The least detrimental alternative. Free Press Publishing.

Hart, S. (2002). Making sure the child’s voice is heard. International Review of Education, 48, 251–258.

Hansen, P. (2009). The “best interests of the child” thesis: Some thoughts from Australia. International Journal of Social Welfare, 18(4), 431–439.

Head, A. (1998). The child’s voice in child and family social work decision making: The perspective of a guardian ad litem. Child & Family Social Work, 3(3), 189–196.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. (1997). Bringing them home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/human-rights-brief-no-1

Kelly, J. (1997). The best interests of a child: A concept in search of meaning. Family Court Review, 35(4), 377–388.

Lewis, A. (2010). Silence in the Context of ‘Child Voice’. Children & society. 24(1), p. 14-23

Long, M., & Sephton, R. (2011). Rethinking the “best interests” of the child: Voices from Aboriginal Child and Family Welfare practitioners. Australian Social Work, 64(1), 96–112.

Lonne, B., & Thomson, J. (2005). Critical review of Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission Inquiry into abuse of children in foster care: Social work’s contribution to reform. Australian Social Work, 58(1), 86–99.

Murphy, Kate., Quartly, M., & Cuthbert, D. (2009). In the Best Interests of the child: Mapping the (Re) Emergence of Pro-Adoption Politics in Contemporary Australia. The Australian Journal of politics and history, 55(2), 201-218

Munro, E (2001). Empowering looked after children. Child and Family Social Work, 6(2), 129–137.

Ramsden, K. (2013). Children’s perspectives on their own wellbeing: ‘I don’t think they can hear us.’ Developing Practice, 36, 18–30.

Ramsundarsingh, S., & Shier, M. L. (2017). Anti-oppressive organisational dynamics in the social services: A literature review.

The British Journal of Social Work, 47(8), 2308–2327.

Riggs, D. (2006). Developmentalism and the rhetoric of best interests of the child. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 2(2), 57–73.

Smeyers, P. (2010). Child rearing in the “risk” society: On the discourse of rights and the “best interests of a child.” Educational Theory, 60(3), 271–284.

Stokes, J., & Schmidt, G. (2011). Race, poverty and child protection decision making. British Journal of Social Work, 41(6), 1105–1121.

Strier, R., & Binyamin S. (2014). Introducing anti-oppressive social work practices in public services: Rhetoric to practice. The British Journal of Social Work, 44(8), 2095–2112.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. (1989). https://www.unicef.org.uk/what-we-do/un-convention-child-rights/

Van Krieken, R. (2005). The “best interests of the child” and parental separation: On the “Civilizing of Parents.” The Modern Law Review, 68(1), 25–48.

Wald, M. (1980). Thinking about public policy toward abuse and neglect of children: A review of Before the Best Interests of the Child. Michigan Law Review, 78(5), 645–693.



2021-11-15 — Updated on 2021-12-02