Why are the life chances of young people in care so low?

31 January 2020

By Graeme Currie

Gary Kerridge spent his childhood in the care system. Pitched from care home to foster family, to crisis centre, to foster family again, he suffered chronic neglect and abuse.  

Leaving care at 18 and identifying as LGBT, Gary was thrust into independent living with minimal transitional support. With no ongoing intervention from social services Gary experienced unemployment, financial and mental health problems, and periods of temporary homelessness. His future looked bleak, his life chances severely limited.

Today Gary holds a PhD and is a Research Fellow at Warwick Business School. Aged 30, following support from friends, he began a university education.

Through sheer determination to reach beyond his difficult circumstances, he is moving forward, managing the narrative of his past as he continues to seek a meaningful future. But, while Gary's story has a positive outcome, it is unusual. Every year several thousands of young people leave care without adequate transitional support, and like Gary, are failed by the very system designed to help them.

Young People Looked After (YPLA) are already disadvantaged in terms of life chances compared with their peers in the general population. They typically experience a journey to adulthood that encompasses multiple, bewildering transitions that evoke feelings of instability, powerlessness, unpreparedness, abandonment and mistrust.

Research suggests that YPLA are more likely to have a conviction, be socially excluded, underachieve academically in school, experience homelessness and have mental health problems. While they are less likely to attend higher education or enter into stable employment than their non-looked after peers.

We know that the transition from care to adulthood is a critical moment in terms of eventual outcomes. It is a moment where young people, many with identity and attachment issues, all too frequently go from a comparatively protected environment into a situation where they are on their own, lacking rudimentary life skills, out in a community with which they may have no identification or attachment. We also know that, for a variety of reasons, this transition is often handled poorly.

YPLA deserve better. That is why my research team are embarking on a four-year £2 million project to explore innovations linked to better managing the transition to adulthood for YPLA. It might not be an obvious subject for business school research, however, the way that organisations work and work together, and the way that meaningful innovation within a system is discovered, evaluated, disseminated and implemented are both central to meeting this and other public policy challenges.

Thus, through our work we hope to discover meaningful innovation in the context of the transition to adulthood for YPLA that can eventually be implemented as policy by expert practitioners, in order to make a real and valuable difference to their life chances.

I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead, but I believe our study features a number of important dimensions which will help us meet that challenge.

One of the most important elements is the participatory methodology and in particular the involvement of current or recently looked after young people both as co-researchers on the project and also via a YPLA advisory board.

In my view it is essential that the user experience, that of the young people, is central to the research process. For a start, it helps us to maintain a focus on the client and their experience, and I believe that the YPLA involved will be able to provide insights in a way that academics, social workers or policymakers cannot.

With the help of the Care Leavers’ Association, our voluntary sector partner, we will recruit as co-researchers a diverse and representative group of between eight to 10 YPLA. They will be aged at least 18, have a degree or be going to undertake a degree, and we will provide this cohort of co-researchers with both the appropriate training in research methods as well as pastoral support and mentoring.

These co-researchers will accompany one of our academic research fellows in doing some primary fieldwork, interviewing policymakers and practitioners. And we will also ask them to help analyse the aggregated data (ie no individual cases where people are named) and identify issues that they think are important in terms of the development, implementation and diffusion of the innovations we consider.

Giving young looked after people a voice in the research

It is also worth noting that, in terms of impacting practice policy, as academics we may be perceived as having limited credibility in a particular sphere of practice. But I am certain that the YPLA working with us, whether as co-researchers or on the advisory board, will have considerable credibility in the wider world and with the people that they engage with, whether it is with local authorities, the voluntary sector, or policymakers. They will be powerful and persuasive advocates for our work and making change happen.

Another important dimension of the research is that we are engaging policymakers and senior practitioners from the outset. So we are co-producing our research not just with the YPLA but also key policymakers and practitioners, many of whom have already expressed an interest in being involved.

We will have a website and use that as a means to inform and dynamically engage policymakers and practitioners as we progress in real time, so that the research process is formative as well as summative.

This is in addition to the main strategic advisory board composed of policymakers, practitioners, and representatives from the YPLA advisory board. And of course there will be ongoing events.

Additional key features of the research process are the multi-disciplined nature of the project, and the combination of examining both innovation process and outcome. The EXploring Innovations in Transition to Adulthood (EXIT) study spans and includes a number of disciplines notably public health, social work and organisational science, as well as voluntary organisations. This multi-disciplined approach will enable us to investigate innovation and its implementation more holistically and effectively.

Also, it is often the case that innovation research adopts a binary approach looking at either the process or the outcome. But in this study we assess the outcomes from the innovations we focus on, at the same time as looking at the innovation process. In other words, once we work out what innovation is effective we can look at the process by which it was developed, implemented and scaled up. It is this combination that produces the most useful information for policymakers.

The research also has an international dimension, as we are working with Monash University in Australia for the purpose of international comparisons and also involving policymakers at the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria State, Australia.

To make the challenge of tracking down, assessing, and understanding useful innovation we have narrowed the search to six types of innovation. The six types focus on the following aspects of the transition: budget and incentives; organisational arrangements; ecological approaches to transition; workforce development; service reconfiguration; and non-traditional intervention.

There is no question that creating better life chances for YPLA by improving the transition process will be challenging. But over the life of the project I expect the research team to discover a number of meaningful innovations that are capable of being scaled up and that merit further investment of resources, and broader implementation via policy. 

In doing so I hope that we are able to establish a productive process involving the authentic co-production of research that engages end-users, practitioners, policymakers and academics, across a number of disciplines, and that can serve as a guide to tackling so-called wicked problems in public policy.

Gary succeeded despite the system, rather than because of it. We hope that our research changes that for other YPLA. In Gary's words, working on this project as a Research Fellow with a care leaver's life story "represents a powerful opportunity to make a valuable contribution toward improving the lives and experiences of other young people transitioning from care".

Graeme Currie is Professor of Public Management and is part of the National Institute for Health Research.

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