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Reflections on research on the transition from care to independence

Summary:
One could identify different research interest when focusing in the transition for young people in care to adulthood. In this research it is important to discuss what concepts that should be used. The article argues that transition is a useful concept. It then outlines that research on the transition is important, and states that there has been a lack on this area in Norway ? up till now. We need both targeted and more general research to understand the transition. The article then presents some of the Norwegians studies that are in progress. Different stages of the transition process can be identified, and the article gives examples on such stages.

Keywords:
research, transition, care, young people, adulthood, stages, comparative

What is the starting point for taking an interest in research on young people's transition from state care to independent life? The answer is of course that there is not one, but many starting points. That is why there also are many perspectives on this research and what type of knowledge and what type of research we need.

My starting point more than ten years ago was that of the practitioner. I had worked with young people in residential care for many years. I had followed them through the transition, and I had seen their struggle to cope. The perspective that this starting point leads to is often connected to the question of what type of professional practice the young people will benefit from. The question of what works is an interesting question for the practitioner.

Another perspective is that of the young person. In many countries the voice of young people has influenced research. Young people themselves have often pointed to the importance of knowing the different facets of the transition as seen from the perspective of actually going through it in one's personal life.

Policy makers have yet another perspective on research on the transition. They want knowledge helping them to take decisions about legislation, about guiding the practitioners and about economy.

What is interesting, is that there also can be identified a researchers perspective on the transition. The researcher may have his or her own view on why this area of research is especially interesting. The transition from youth to adulthood, from being a client to live independently, from being in care to leave care, includes a wide range of topics that a researcher may focus on. For example; both youth researchers and professional researchers will find areas to explore here. Researchers from different disciplines may look into the transition, such as sociologists, pedagogues, psychologists and so on.

The transition is filled with interesting topics to explore. Here in Norway the transition has ? up till now ? not drawn much attention from researchers. From my point of view this is hard to understand. As I just stated, many interesting questions can be explored. In my experience, a range of topics connected to youth can be identified among young people in marginalized positions at an earlier stage than what is possible when focusing on the general population of young people. One example is violence between girls. Another is the different situations of the first, second and third generations of immigrants. If you want to seek knowledge about such topics at an early stage of developing that knowledge, go to young people in care, in the transition and after the transition.

This gives researchers on these topics a unique possibility to point to development in the making. This is important in our time, when the speed of development increases by the day. One implication is that it also gives researchers access to knowledge that is politically interesting.

When this point is made, that there are different starting points and different perspectives, I would like to draw attention to the young people themselves. In Norway there are about two thousand care leavers at any point of time. This is not a very large number. Research on the transition is not important as a way to find out about large groups of the population. On the contrary: it is important because this group is quite small. It could very well become invisible in the jungle of important issues to research. And it could be forgotten by policy makers. So one of the reasons to do research on the transition is connected to researcher's obligation to make visible, to point to what goes on between people in the society, to seek the knowledge that makes the society better for its population.

Let me use this opportunity to reflect shortly on concepts used. In Norway we often use the term ettervern, translated to English, this means aftercare. Almost every time I make a presentation on this topic, I start by saying that I feel that this term is problematic. I feel that it is not a good tool to comprehend what we need to comprehend. It does not make sense to speak about vern (meaning care) (the last part of the term) when we need knowledge on what young people are doing in the transition and how to assist them. I often have pointed to the British concept of leaving care, which at least gives us a picture of a process, from being in care to having left care. But more and more I have begun to speak about transitions. Transition is a good tool to analyze what we focus on. It gives us the picture of a process, and it gives us the opportunity to give an account of a multi-faceted process. It does not in itself make connections to the specific transition that we concentrate on, the transition from care, but this connection can easily be made by adding the words "from care". By focusing on transitions in general, other research areas are presented to us; they may give us valuable material to comprehend the special transitions we focus on in our research.

And it was a big relief to learn that this concept, as I understand it, is becoming more central in Britain as well. The latest demonstration of that was given by The Health Department, which presented this as their main concept of the legislation, at a conference I attended in Leeds last winter. This is also the most central concept suggested by the members of the research network represented here today, INTRAC, well described in its upcoming book (Stein and Munro 2008).

In 2001 I published my first book on leaving care, Pa begge Sider Av Atten (English: Both Sides of Eighteen (Storo 2001)). The last chapter is partly devoted to the question of research. In this chapter I stated that I would welcome Norwegian research on issues connected to leaving care. I mentioned that we needed what British researcher Bob Broad ten years ago called national data on care leavers. And I wrote about Mike Stein's suggestions for future research on leaving care in Britain, in the first edition of What Works in Leaving Care from 1997. I also suggested a wide range of research questions. At that time, we had a poor research base in Norway when it comes to the topic we are gathered here to discuss today. We only had three or four small, qualitative studies where young people having left care were interviewed a few years after they had started living independently. None of the studies were solely occupied with leaving care issues. Their main focus was what kind of help given during the informant's time in care, which they did value as best in retrospect. And; how did they do in independent life at the time of the interviews. The studies were however important first and foremost because they helped us realize that these young people had something important to say to us. They could contribute to our knowledge by giving us their knowledge.

Three weeks ago I gave a presentation of research on the transition at the annual conference of the national foster care association. For the first time I pointed only to Norwegian research. For me this represented an important mile stone. Having seen how important research has been in other countries to highlight the issues of the transition, I am very happy to say that Norwegian researchers are to an increasingly extent taking interest in this topic.

This is important; one of the main reasons is because of the impact research has in modern societies.

I believe we should have a twofold view on what type of research interest is needed to fill out the picture of the transition. First we need targeted research, with a direct focus on the transition from care to independence. In addition to this we need research on issues that can be made interesting for understanding the transition, for example research on how young people start families, or how clients go about to end their client career. The targeted research is needed to find out about this special group; care leavers, and their special situation. The latter type of research can be used to develop areas of general interest that also can develop knowledge about this special transition.

We are today on the premises of NOVA. I am very happy to find that this conference is arranged just here. NOVA has been an important force in Norwegian research of the social sciences for more than ten years. It has been crucial to research in the Child Welfare field. But not until the last few years its researchers have taken a grip on issues connected to the process of leaving care.

I will mention some of the research that I think will be important contributions in the next few years to come. The list is not complete, but I think that it is not needed in this group. I hope however that projects not mentioned will not be valued as less important.

First I am happy to mention the research of NOVA's own researchers Sten-Erik Clausen and Lars B. Kristoffersen. They have announced that they will publish their next report from a large and important study this winter. These researchers have conducted a longitudinal study on client careers for all children and young people in care and those receiving assistance while living at home between 1990 and 2006. The total population of the study is 121 000 children and young people. So in a Norwegian context, this is a unique material to study. This is important work as the annual statistical data do not say anything about care careers. Kristofersen published a report from this study in 2005, and it concentrated on the health situation of children and young people in care and after care, and their families. One of the conclusions was (in my translation):

They have an obviously larger portion of disability benefit compared with children and young people in the general population. There is also a higher mortality rate among children and young people having received child welfare services and among their biological parents... Children and young people with a care career seem to be an even more vulnerable group when it comes to welfare policy than revealed in other research.
(Kristofersen 2005))

The researchers will ? as I mentioned ? publish more from their work this winter, and some of the material is said to reveal just as dramatic knowledge about this group, for example that almost 75 % of care leavers will receive help from social services within the first seven years after moving to independence.

The research from Clausen and Kristoffersen gives us the first national data on care leavers, and I predict that they will be very important as a knowledge base when developing policy and practice over the next years. Finally we can give answers to the question; who is the care leaver? I would also like to mention that Kristoffersen is working on a study, based on the same data, which focus on what effect leaving care services have had on young people in the transition. This study will go on for another year.

I should of course mention the project that is the direct reason that we are gathered here today. It is starting up now in the beginning of 2008, and will end near Christmas. This project will map the actual practice locally in the Child Welfare services on assisting young people in the transition. This study will have impact on future legislation; at least this is what is stated by the former Minister; Karita Bekkemellom.

Two ongoing studies focus on how young people describe their way through the transition, understood both as the transition from care and as the transition from youth to adulthood. Sociologist Elisabeth Fransson and psychologist Anne Jansen both are studying young people's developing understanding of themselves as a young person in care and as a young person getting ready for independence and eventually leaving care. From different theoretical perspectives, they struggle to get a grip on how young people take part in surrounding discourses and how they construct identities as human beings in development.

Central concepts in this type of research could be attachment, negotiation, competence, defining of a self, marginalization, inclusion and discursive turning points.

The transition from care is also central to an ongoing project at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in the city Trondheim. Some findings are already published, and the project will produce their main report in June this year.

What more should be researched? I would very much like to point to the need of more research going in depth, visualizing the struggle of the young people going through the transition. I believe that this type of research may have the potential to give us a breakthrough in understanding the transition. It may also contribute to breakthrough on a political level.

I have through the years targeted my interest on different stages of the transition, when speaking to students, Child Welfare workers, and foster parents.

It all began when I some years ago wrote about the seventeen year olds. They are the young people that are approaching the stage of independence. They are in an age where it is normal for young people to spend their time on music, friends, partying, and hopefully also on school. At this age young people in care have to make choices of great importance for their future life. To some of them this is fatal.

The next age group is the 18 to 20 year olds. These are in the stage of determination and doubt. A worker that was my colleague in a residential unit called this the stage of anger. The young people that eventually are free from carers and other adults that make decisions in their life, spend twenty-four hours seven days a week to define themselves as independent. Quite often this process seems to imply exposure of negative feelings. This may be problematic if the young person takes the opportunity to finish contact with the support person, or if the support person does not see beyond the spoken word, and fails to comprehend and deal with the anger. Some of the young people succeed to find their place as independent despite their anger; others don't -- with even more reason to be angry.

Then I would like to point to the 22 year olds. At this age the young person is more established as an adult. At this stage he or she is available for conversation again. They are not only more available for conversations about themselves, they have quite a lot to say. Their lives can be expected to be relatively peaceful compared to earlier stages, their living conditions are more stable than a couple of years earlier, and they have done some more negotiations with their parents and found their new social position in their families. They have to some extent found their place in education and work, and they have started making their own families. This is the time when their girlfriends and boyfriends receive their total life history and their view on what has happened and why, which of course is not the task of boyfriends and girlfriends to contain. For some young people with a care history this is the time when they are ready for therapy. And if they want it, they must pay for it themselves.

The last group I have called 29+. This represents the rest of their lives. Who cares what is going on at this stage? My answer is that researchers may do. As my colleague Ingeborg Helgeland has done. I will mention her study on young people having been clients in a treatment programme for young people in one specific region in the mid-eighties. Not all of them were in care, but I would suggest that to a great extent the findings can highlight the lives of care leavers as well. She has done a longitudinal study where the most recent publication summed up her interviews with her informants when they turned 30. At that time two thirds of them coped reasonably well. They lived a life without drugs, with some sort of income, and with supporting families and social networks. Another third did not live that type of life.

I very much like one finding that Helgeland has highlighted in her report. The informants of the study told her about turning points that made them stop doing crime and drugs, and start a more regular life. In short, the answers were that the boys experienced that turning point when they got together with a girlfriend or started cohabitation. At that point they found other values in their lives, and many of them also gained a new family, their in-laws. For the girls it was another event, not surprisingly it was the time of being a mother that represented their turning point. Then they were forced to become responsible and that meant also to begin cooperating with others, for example child welfare services, on living a more regular life.

Recently Helgeland stated that she has applied for funding to do another follow-up. It will be done when her informants are 40 years of age.

I would very much welcome more research on how care leavers deal with the potentially marginalized situation they may face in independent life. We usually conceptualize marginalization as connected to education and labour market, to housing and to social networks. We could also add the persons connection to a position where he or she contributes to developing the society, through paying taxes, voting in general elections, taking part in the work of organizations that engage to make our society a better place to live. To what extent do care leavers try to fall into place as included, as contributors? How do they describe their citizenship?

Finally I will mention an initiative from the English project "What makes the difference" that was launched a couple of weeks ago. They have done a peer research programme where they trained young people in basic research methods and supervised them while doing interviews with 250 young people after the transition from care. The initiative is an invitation to do the same peer research in 10 other European countries, within and outside the EU. I have here the invitation to Norway, and I would like to find co-operating colleagues here or elsewhere to do the Norwegian part of this project.

As you know very well from your work, the topics and questions of the transition are many. And from comparing between countries, we also know that many of the topics are similar across nation borders ? and maybe also across some of the cultural borders ? even if this last statement is not very well researched today. In Norway, I feel it is necessary to do two things. One is to further develop national research on the transition. The other is to connect to the international network and participate in exchanging findings and experience.

1) NOVA - Norwegian Social Research; Expert Conference was held in Oslo on February 28 and 29, 2008. The conference marked the start of NOVA's research on the transition. Delegates from England, Northern-Ireland, USA, Sweden and Norway were present.

References:

Kristofersen, L. (2005). Barnevernbarnas helse. Uforhet og dodelighet i peioden 1990 - 2002. Oslo, NIBR. 2005:12.

Stein, M. and E. R. Munro, Eds. (2008). Young People's Transition from Care to Adulthood. International Research and Practice. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Storo, J. (2001). Pa begge sider av atten. Om ungdom, barnevern og ettervern. Oslo, Universitetsforlaget.

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