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‘Reciprocal Encounters’ - Young Adults Leaving Care

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ReProCounters (‘Reciprocal Encounters’ - Young Adults Leaving Care)

Reporting period: 2016-09-01 to 2018-08-31

In 2016 the EU funded a two-year Marie Curie Scholar, Professor Maritta Törrönen to lead the study “Reciprocal Encounters” (ReProCounters) which had an overall aim to produce preventive, client-based social work guidelines regarding how to best support reciprocal participation opportunities for young adults (18–25 years of age) who have experiences of substitute care including both foster families and child and youth welfare institutions. The focus of the study was on what can be learned from the perspective of young adults regarding how they can be best supported through this period and the process of leaving care.

The project had 4 key objectives: The primary research objective was to learn from the perspective of young adults with care experiences how they can be best supported through the leaving care transition period. Secondly, the study aimed to compare two case studies with young adults who have left care – one in the UK and one in Finland – representing different welfare states in Europe and their child welfare services. The data set for Finland already existed (n=50), and a similar data set was gathered for the UK (n=24). The third aim was to negotiate a UK case study site and develop a research team which includes academics, practitioners and use a complementary participatory research methodology to explore the research questions, undertaking research with young adults and not just on them by training young adults with care leaving experiences to be part of the research process. The fourth objective was to develop a dedicated project website that hosts the aims, actions and deliveries and the final research project report.
The project consisted of participatory action research with young adults with experience of leaving care and a broader research team including academics from the Host University and practitioners from a case study local authority. Alongside the project a related training programme consisting of internal mentorship and placements with specialist organisations in Finland and England ensured the career development of Professor Törrönen. A related publication and presentation plan ensured that the results from the research were regularly disseminated to academics, practitioners and young adults with care experiences.

The main finding of the project is that the young adults in the study stressed the continuity of social connections that create a sense of belonging and connectedness. It means that young adults can establish secure attachments and their sense of stability and self-worth that lie behind their perception of belonging.

Young people need a personal mix of interdependence and independence which are supported by education, employment or a meaningful activity with good enough finances to reach stability in their life when they are leaving care. ‘Emotional participation’ has as its heart the continuity of social relationships and emotional connectedness. These make possible an individual’s attachment to a community and his or her involvement in processes that are significant for the community.
To support young adults’ reciprocal emotional participation there is need for first, to reconstruct social care work orientation, second, support psychosocial status of young adults and third, make gradual transition from care a possibility. We recommend that policy makers and services adopt a community orientation which is based on the understanding of holistic living circumstances and life-long social networks. Also, special attention is given to young adults’ education, employment or a meaningful activity and financial security but also to the support of their mental well-being especially if the young adult has mental difficulties or has substance abuse issues. Gradual transition means possibilities for young adults to leave care when they feel ready to leave, but also opportunities to postpone their staying until they are 25 years old, following the English age limit. Gradual transition means also that it is possible for young adults to remain in contact with their former caregivers. Peer support is also recommended both during and after care to ensure young adults do not feel alone in their experience.

A training package was designed to increase Törrönen’s knowledge about: the different welfare contexts for young adults in the UK and Finland; new directions in participatory research with young adults and the translation of research into policy and practice guidance. In terms of broadening Törrönen’s expertise in welfare contexts and translation of research into policy and practice there was a built-in secondment in Finland and three placements in England focused on strategies to translate research into national and EU policy and to enhance Törrönen’s participatory research knowledge. The knowledge and skills developed during these periods assisted in ensuring that the final guidelines produced from the project are grounded in up-to-date policy contexts and relevant to teaching, consulting and research.
The project has first enriched the understanding of ‘reciprocity’ and participatory action research as concepts, processes and outcomes. In empirical and practical terms, it brings first, to theory-building and methodological improvements concerning participatory research with young adults. This part resulted in several publications both in England and Finland in collaboration of Anglia Ruskin University, University of Helsinki and the Essex Children in Care Council (see Part B).

Second, the expected results will improve social work policy–practice related to young adults’ participation. The study produced very unique data and knowledge about young adult’s experiences of leaving care both in Finland and England when young adults interviewed their peers using the methods of participatory action research. Both the findings from the study and the methodology of the research have the potentials to impact significantly social work policy-practice how young adults’ social relationships and their well-being is understood when they start independent living.

Third, through the public discussions the project will increase in the long run young adults’ awareness of the issues and options to participate in welfare policy and social work policy–practice making. The study provided recommendations for inclusive young adults’ welfare policy making and how to improve social work policy–practice in the child and youth services so that it increases young adults’ capabilities to participate in the society when they start independent living. In the UK case study supported by the Fellowship young adults co-presented findings to practitioners and engaged in groupwork at the learning event to consider the implications of the research for social work practice. All young adult peer researchers received certificates of attendance from Anglia Ruskin University which detailed the training they received, skills and attributes built as part of the project which they can use as part of their CVs when applying for employment or education.
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