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ELTA Everyday Lives: (Re)Conceptualising Transitions to Adulthood for Young People in Care

Final Report Summary - ELTA (ELTA Everyday Lives: (Re)Conceptualising Transitions to Adulthood for Young People in Care)

The ELTA project brought together Hélène Join-Lambert, from the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, with Janet Boddy and Rachel Thomson, at the Centre for Innovation and Research in Child and Adulthood (CIRCY), University of Sussex. This project attends to the complexity of young people’s everyday lives in care, located in social and cultural contexts and entwined with family and community, and aims to inform cross-national understandings of outcomes of care through a biographical (re)conceptualisation of ‘transitions to adulthood’ that draws on cutting edge theory and methodology in youth and family studies.

The objectives were to
1. Conduct a critical review of international literature on transitions to adulthood: (a) for young people in care; and (b) within interdisciplinary childhood and youth studies.

2. Develop a case study methodology and narrative analytic framework for the study of everyday lives and relationships amongst young people in public care.

3. Conduct a comparative narrative analysis of case studies derived from new research with young people in public care in England and equivalent archived data from a research with young people in the general population (the Inventing Adulthoods research)

4. Conduct a comparative study of young people placed away from home in England and France, to examine the connections between narratives of everyday lives and relationships (including family and substitute carers), and perceptions of identity, agency, aspirations and transitions to adulthood;

5. Establish a sample in England and France for future longitudinal research and conducting preliminary longitudinal follow-up; and

6. Devise an appropriate methodology and funding proposal for a longitudinal cross-European study of the relationship between everyday lives in public care and transitions to adulthood.

The following work has been conducted towards these objectives:
1. The international literature review included three meta-analyses of research articles on young people’s life situations after having left care, two quantitative longitudinal studies just starting in France and Quebec, six cross-national studies on young people with or without a care background, a range of qualitative studies conducted in France, Germany, Quebec, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK and published between 2006 and 2013, selected to reflect their methodological diversity ranging from in-depth ethnographic observations, semi-structured interviews, quantitative tools, to innovative methods of inquiry with young people in care. This review also includes a large scale survey on everyday lives of young people and young adults in Germany, and a qualitative longitudinal study on everyday lives of young people over time in the UK. To date, the work on this review has led to an invited conference, a peer reviewed international conference (EUSARF), and to the submission of an article manuscript to an internationally recognised journal (Youth and Society) and an abstract to an international conference themed symposium (Journal of Youth Studies Conference) on methodologies for qualitative longitudinal research with vulnerable youth.

2. The methodology derived from the review and from Janet Boddy’s and Rachel Thomson’s previous research included activities like social mapping, guided walks, and digital photos. The purposes were (a) to devise a methodological approach that would be both rigorous and flexible in illuminating everyday lives over time for young people in care, enabling participants to choose the topics, places, people, and objects most significant in their everyday lives, and aspects of everyday life that they wanted to talk about, (b) to make this research experience enjoyable and interesting to them, with respect to the ethical sensitivities of this difficult-to-research field and (c) to devise ways of keeping in touch with them over time (given the instability of life in care for many young people). Before proceeding with the data collection, consultations were held with six young people having experience care in France and in England, and with Emily Munro, a researcher who is an expert in transitions from care to adulthood and in participatory approaches, and who gave advice on ethical aspects of the methodology.

3. The online archive of the Inventing Adulthoods project comprises 151 interviews, out of which a sample of 3 interviews was selected for the proximity of age, gender and socio-economic backgrounds with the interviews with young people in care in England. This has allowed for a first analytic comparison of young people's narratives.

4. Within this project, case studies of 16 young people in care have been conducted in England and France, including four interviews with each young person within a time frame of six to 12 weeks. Interviews have also been conducted with nine of the young people’s carers (with young people's permission). Altogether, 74 qualitative interviews were conducted between December 2013 and September 2014. Because of the practical challenges of making contact with young people over time (and in line with the project's methodological objectives; see 5 below), it proved necessary to conduct the last interviews after the formal end of the project and so the narrative analysis is still in progress.

5. Meetings with young people were spread over six to twelve weeks. The methodological development included experimentation on how to keep in touch with young people, and consent was sought to contact them again in the future for a follow-up research.

6. Ten physical and virtual meetings were held with partners from five European countries in order to work out a common project which was submitted under the H2020 Innovation & Research programme, call “YOUNG-SOCIETY-2014 Early job insecurity and labour market exclusion”.

Key results:
1. Results of the international review suggest three key messages. (i) First, the need for a specific approach to everyday lives of young people in care, paying attention to the ethical issues related to power imbalances and biographical experiences that are particularly sensitive for young people in placement. Specific methods have been used previously, allowing young people to choose what they want to talk about and have fun whilst participating in the research. (ii) Second, there is a critical need to look at links between everyday experiences and choices young people make over time in a qualitative and longitudinal approach, yet keeping in mind that keeping in touch with vulnerable young people demands high level of attention and commitment from the researchers. (iii) Research needs to take account of the impact of cultural, legal and institutional contexts of care, and this can be achieved through a cross-national approach to studying young people’s lives, for instance through expectations implicitly made to young adults, in the way young people set their priorities in their everyday lives.

2. Consultation with young people who have experienced care highlighted critical aspects of investigating everyday lives in a sensitive context of care, like the risk of stigmatisation. The use of social mapping as a mean to start the description of everyday life turned out to be highly efficient because (a) young people can choose the places they talk about, (b) drawing helps them feel more comfortable while being recorded, (c) the maps as products of data collection are powerful tools for the analysis. The guided walk is an excellent way of pointing out familiar places, objects and habits young people would not spontaneously think of as being worth describing (revealing the taken-for-granted aspects of everyday life). Digital pictures give young people control over the information they disclose: using the camera or their own mobile phones, they make pictures of their everyday, which they then talk about in the next interview. The pictures and walks themselves, besides guiding the narrative analysis of interview talk, give additional information on priorities in young people’s lives, allowing visual analysis and an embodied understanding of everyday places and activities that matter for young people. The multi-method approach builds a mosaic of information, enabling a more holistic understanding of young people's lives, from their own perspectives.

3. The archived interviews show that English young people re-analysed from the Inventing Adulthoods study invariably described everyday life by talking about family relationships. The comparison with the narratives of young people living in care highlights the invisibility of family in much the discourse for most of them. Whereas young people living with their parents, or at least one of them, refer constantly to parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, cousins and so on, to describe what is important to them, the relative absence of family in the narratives of everyday life of young people in care in England was striking. Their accounts of everyday lives instead centred on alternative priorities like (sometimes virtual) friends, leisure and sport communities.

4. Nonetheless, young people in care interviewed in France and England evidently share the same priorities around relationships with friends and families and the notion of home. They often mention not only their family of origin but also their previous and present foster families, as significant relationships. The use of technologies like mobile phones, tablets and computers is strongly linked to the necessity of social relationships in their identity building. School often plays a crucial part in their lives, be it for the future job perspectives or for the “social side of it”. Their accounts of school changes highlight the discontinuities and unpredictability linked to the changes from the family of origin to a foster family or to a residential home, and from one place of care to another. Maps and pictures, rather than narratives, are indirect ways of showing the emotional importance of birth families (and previous foster families) in young people’s everyday lives even when they are in care.

5. Using the new technologies and social media, as well as adapting to young people’s timescales and agendas, turned out to be crucial in order to meet with young people over time. This allows for an understanding of the tension between continuities and discontinuities and of the issue of predictability in young people’s everyday life. Among the 22 participants of this study, 18 agreed to be contacted again in the future in the event of a follow-up study. Four young people out of 16 dropped out of the project between the first and the fourth interview.

6. The results of this project have led to a proposal called PREPARE : Preparing for precarity ? Everyday lives and job insecurity for young people in five countries, coordinated by the University of Sussex in partnership with the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense, Universität Siegen, Fondazione Zancan, and Unywerstet Warszawski, which was submitted to the EU in June 2014 (H2020 Societal Challenges: Young 1, Proposal ID SEP-210170156). The ranking is expected to be published shortly. Join-Lambert's central role in developing this major proposal reflects the success of the developmental objectives of the fellowship as well as the methodological and substantive objectives achieved.

• Everyday life for the young people who took part in the study is very similar in some ways to the everyday life of young people who are not in care: Young people use social media like Facebook, technologies like mobile phones, they value friendships, recognise the importance of school (even if they don’t always enjoy it!), and have dreams for the future, of jobs, families or children.
• But everyday life in care can be very different from the everyday life of young people who are not in care. Making and keeping friends is really challenging when you have to change schools. Young people who took part in the study were out of their home a lot: everyday life includes a lot of moving between places like different homes and to friends.
• Most young people in both countries saw being in care as a positive opportunity, even though not being able to live with their parents could be hard to accept: “I’d rather be safe and unhappy than happy and not safe.”

The dissemination of the results is continuing through a range of scientific publications and conferences, two feedback meetings with young people, carers and heads of services involved in the research in East Sussex and in Paris, training activities for master students in youth studies and social work and professional conferences and publications for stakeholders in the area of child care in England and France. Expected impacts are a better adaptation of care practices to young people’s experiences, needs and aspirations.