Children can easily become lost in the system, but a timeline can help you see them

16 February 2017

Step into almost any museum or gallery and you are likely to find a timeline. This could be portraying the history of a recent war or conflict, or showing the lifespan and works of a famous artist or scientist.

Many of us are visual learners and remember more with what we see rather than what we read – hence a timeline is a useful tool to aid learning and understanding in a number of contexts.

Now, imagine we were able to use the timeline as an effective tool for us to step into the shoes of every looked after child. This would enable everyone involved in important decision making on the future of that child - including parents, carers, social workers, panel members and sheriffs - to visually 'see', consider and understand the child's journey through life. At a glance, the timeline would pinpoint significant events in a child's upbringing and their development.

This is exactly what we at CELCIS have already done. We have piloted the use a child's timeline in East Renfrewshire and Dumfries and Galloway. For me, it's been incredible to watch the reaction of colleagues in these local authorities when they first see a child's timeline. You can almost see the penny drop in their eyes!

Children's Panel members in East Renfrewshire have been able to see the child's journey as a snapshot, allowing them to speed up their decision making; and legal services in East Renfrewshire are now using a child's timeline in their submission to court for a Permanence Order. Both local authority teams are also reporting that timelines enable parents with literacy difficulties to visually understand their child's experience to date.

In Scotland, all too often young children are excused from the Children's Hearings System and the focus of attention can shift to addressing the parent's issues, rather than the child's needs. The timeline tool has the potential to keep the child 'visually' at the centre of decision making about their future.

What is a timeline?


A timeline showing how a looked after child might progess through the care system.

  • A timeline tells the child's story in a simple and powerful way, normally using one sheet of A4 paper.
  • It plots out the child's journey chronologically and captures the number of moves, critical points in decision making, medical and educational history.
  • Each timeline is unique to the child being discussed and in all settings it can be used to consider issues of loss, attachment and timescales.
  • It supports our analysis of the child's experience, the significance of each experience and assists in developing the child's plan.
  • Unlike a written chronology, gaps in the timeline are a crucial visual representation of how much time has passed between each event, and can often tell us much more about the child's lived experience than the chronology alone.
  • It helps those caring for the child to emotionally connect with their experience to date and consider how best to support them.

How can a timeline be used?

  • With parents, they can be actively involved in adding details to the timeline and it can support parents to maintain a focus on their child. It can motivate parents to be more actively involved in decision making and assist them in understanding the importance of timescales for their child.
  • With carers and extended family. When a child moves to a new care setting, a timeline can assist the new carers or family members to understand the child's experience to date, without having to read lengthy reports.
  • With decision makers - social workers attending meetings, reviews, children's hearings and court can use a visual timeline to support their analysis and recommendation. It can be a useful addition to the other reports shared and can assist in keeping the needs of the child at the centre of decision making.  It can highlight the time the child has been looked after and the implications of further delay. It can assist decision makers to see the child as a person, no matter how young.
  • Within supervision – a timeline can support reflective practice and assist workers in developing their understanding of a child's development. When a new worker is allocated an existing case, a timeline can assist them in understanding the child's journey, prior to their involvement.
  • With children and young people – a timeline can facilitate and support a child's understanding of their own life story, can enable a conversation about what happened to them, the age they were at each point and what this meant for them.

The impact of sharing a timeline is that it can create a sense of urgency for making important decisions about the child's permanent place of residence. This is something that colleagues and I at CELCIS feel passionate about. We are committed to ending the unacceptably long waiting times for a permanent home experienced by so many children, which we know hampers their chances in life.

Using a timeline is a powerful tool in making child-centred decisions about the future of a looked after child.  We hold complex and detailed information on our looked after children but it may take a timeline to properly 'see' them and realise what is in their best interests.



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