By Rhiannon Smith

Journey to the River Sea, written by Eva Ibbotson, was one of my favourite books growing up. It won the Smarties Book Prize Gold Award and was a runner-up for two other major awards. My own copy is so worn now that the corners are curling over!

Journey to the River Sea

The book – set in the early 20th century – follows the story of Maia, an orphaned girl who is sent from her boarding school in England to live with relatives she’s never met in Brazil’s Amazon. After embarking on this adventure, Maia meets two other children living in unusual circumstances: Finn, who has recently been orphaned and is living alone in the rainforest, and Clovis, an English boy who has been adopted and is living with a family of travelling actors (the Goodleys).

None of these three characters in Journey to the River Sea are living in ideal situations. Maia’s relatives, the Carters, are not as nice as she had hoped, with the twins especially not giving her a warm welcome. Finn is not being looked after by anybody and is being tracked by ‘the crows’, who want to take him back to live with relatives in England. The Goodleys do not seem to be suitable guardians for Clovis, as they are on the run from their debts and they aren’t always kind to him.

The law in Wales however has ways of protecting children who find themselves in similar situations, and we will look at how they do this below. It is worth noting that the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 made it a duty for ministers to pay regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) when developing or reviewing legislation and policy. The Convention is a statement of the rights held by children.

When a child does not have parents to take care of them…

In Journey to the River Sea, it is indicated that Clovis’ birth parents could not look after him, as he lived with a foster mother in England before being adopted. Similarly, Finn’s father Bernard has passed away, and because he does not want to live with his frightening relatives in England, he is fending for himself.

The thought of your parents not being able to look after you is scary, but there are laws in place to make sure that all children have someone to care for them.

Some parents will have a will, which is a legal document that sets out their wishes in the event of their death. Wills will usually set out who will look after a person’s children. In the relation to Clovis and Finn, it seems that their parents either did not do this, or had nobody they felt could care for their children.

Section 76 of the Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014 sets out a duty for local authorities to provide accommodation for children who have nobody to take parental responsibility for them, who are abandoned, or whose circumstances stop them being cared for by someone with parental responsibility. Accommodation may take the form of placement with a relative, a foster placement or finding them a place in a children’s home.

If there is no prospect of a child ever returning to live with their birth parents, then the authorities may decide that adoption is the best option for them. Article 21 of the UNCRC says that children should have a safe and lawful adoption that is in their best interests. To begin this process, a child will be put on the Welsh Adoption Register (part of the National Adoption Service). Any prospective adopters will be carefully checked by the local authority to ensure they are suitable parents.

When a child is not living in adequate accommodation…

While Clovis and his adoptive family are performing at the local theatre, they stay in the ‘Hotel Paradiso’. However, despite its name, the hotel is no paradise! There are bedbugs, slugs in the showers and filthy bathrooms. No child should have to live in conditions anything like this.

Article 27 of the UNCRC states that all children have the right to an adequate standard of living. In real life, if a child’s parent or guardian chooses to let them live somewhere that is very unclean or otherwise unsuitable, it may be classed as child neglect. In this case, the child in question would likely be referred to their local authority. Depending on the circumstances, and whether there is an ongoing risk of harm, the local authority may apply to the court for a care order under section 31 of the Children Act 1989. If the reason the child and their family were living such conditions was because of poverty, then the local authority would likely step in to help provide more suitable accommodation.

Clovis’ situation is complicated, as both of these reasons seem to be in play. However, when thinking about the Goodleys’ other shortfalls as parents, as well as their poor choice of accommodation, it seems probable that Clovis would be referred to his local authority.

When a child does not want to live or remain living with their legal guardians…

Finn has chosen to stay living alone because he doesn’t want to live with his father’s family back in England, as he loves his home in the Amazon, and his father was treated badly by them as a child. The Goodleys’ problems and treatment of Clovis eventually lead him to run away and seek help from Maia and the Carters.

Article 12 of the UNCRC sets out the right to respect of a child’s views, as it is important that children have a say in where they are placed. Article 25 also establishes a child’s right to a regular review of their treatment in care.

In relation to care and supervision orders, under section 39 of the Children Act 1989, a child who is subject to this type of order can apply to the court for it to be discharged. Section 83 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 also states that where there is a care and support plan being prepared, reviewed or revised, the local authority must involve the child in question.

In real life, when deciding where to place Finn after his father’s death, the local authority would have to take into account the fact he did not want to live with his grandfather. Clovis’ situation would be a little more complicated, assuming his adoption was legal, as adoption orders will only be revoked in rare circumstances. However, if he was being seriously mistreated, then the local authority would probably apply to the court to remove him from the care of his legal guardians.

When a child is mistreated by their parent or guardian…

As already noted, Maia’s relatives in Brazil are not as nice as she imagined, and she is not treated with much affection by them, despite them being her family. Finn’s father grew up in a particularly bad situation, being abused – sometimes physically – by his family. It is perhaps not surprising that Finn doesn’t want to go and live with them. However, the law in Wales takes it very seriously when children are treated in ways like this.

As you will probably know, child abuse is a criminal offence. If this occurs, then the local authority will step in and apply to the court for a care order under section 31, to ensure the child is removed from that person or people. Even if an adult hits you on a one-off occasion, this is still not allowed under the law, because of the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act 2020. This law means that adults cannot hit a child just because they say it is ‘reasonable punishment’.

However, child abuse does not only involve physical mistreatment by an adult – it can also be emotional, and can be inflicted by another child.

Another less obvious way a child may be mistreated is if their parents or guardians fail to provide them with an education. As a travelling actor Clovis does not attend school, and it is not clear whether he is being home-schooled by the Goodleys.

Article 28 of the UNCRC clearly states that all children have the right to an education. Under Welsh law, children must be given a full-time education that meets their needs, whether through home-schooling or school. A local authority’s welfare officer will contact a child’s family if they are concerned that a child is not getting a suitable education at home. In real life, the Goodleys would get in a lot of trouble for not providing Clovis with an education.

Protecting Children’s Rights

As you can see, although Maia, Finn and Clovis find themselves in some difficult situations in the book, in real life the law in Wales has ways of protecting children, to ensure their rights are respected. And if you’re curious to know more about their stories, Journey to the River Sea is well worth the read!


Rhiannon is currently studying Law at Swansea University and is hoping to go on to become a barrister. She is particularly passionate about human rights law and human rights more generally. Outside of university, Rhiannon has been a volunteer with Girlguiding UK, where she works with her local Rainbow unit.