CJ Hamilton

CJ Hamilton: we need to look deeper into the human experiences of those who have been in care

We all hear the statistics from time to time. There are 40,000 care leavers in the UK. There have been so many hospital admissions, and so many arrests. A certain number have been reported missing. These are the sort of figures that journalists sitting at their computers will lap up.

But we would do well not to be so obsessed with the headline figures, in my opinion. True, they make a good story. But in getting wrapped up in the grand narrative, it’s so easy to lose track of the individual lives we are talking about, and for those agencies helping teenagers transition from a care institution to adult independence, so easy to get hooked on box-ticking exercises.

Because, at the end of the day, statistics are only part of the story. We are talking about human experience and human happiness here. Is the care leaver happy with the house they have been placed in? Is there a mismatch between our observations of them and how they really feel?

Straightforward questions we may think, but notoriously hard to answer unless you are someone who has an insight into the life experience of a care leaver. Someone who can speak from experience. Someone like me.

I had a difficult childhood. Under the care of a London local authority, and troubled, I was frequently excluded from school. I ended up doing my GCSEs as an adult. If I am anything to go by, the local authorities and charities supporting care leavers’ transition to adulthood should definitely be focusing on psychological and emotional outcomes.

This includes offering therapeutic support for past trauma and teaching care leavers key life skills to prepare them for independence.

Often at significant risk of social exclusion, we want these young people to develop the sort of social networks and levels of trust with individuals and groups that will increase their societal participation; in other words, enhance their social capital.

Research training

For me, personally, things gradually improved. I received enough of the support I needed to pursue an education and by my twenties I was studying Health and Social Care at City, University of London. I followed that up with a postgraduate diploma in Social Science Research Methods at UCL. Now in my late twenties, I have been applying for doctoral research programmes and have just received an offer from the University of Oxford for an MPhil in Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation.

In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I joined the EXploring Innovation in Transition (EXIT) Study, and quickly became involved in the research looking at pilot schemes to increase the life chances of care leavers, and how to sustain them. 

I have loved every minute of it. There has been research training involved, where we have learnt about data collection and data analysis, and also coding, a type of thematic analysis of interviews that I really struggled with at first.

Interviewing fellow care leavers and other research participants in a series of semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions has perhaps been the most rewarding aspect of the field work for me. They were a lot of fun and a lot of rich data came out of them, which will go into a series of academic papers to come out of the EXIT study.

Moreover, EXIT has stood out for me for the inclusive ethos of its research, with senior and junior researchers supporting each other in the endeavour. It has also been a good example of co-production, where my fellow care leavers and I have been involved in the peer design of the research. This was part of the ‘Ability-Motivation-Opportunity’ framework of the EXIT programme.

And on a personal level, it has helped to catapult me into a fledgling career in social policy research.

But it is, of course, much bigger than that. The question that the EXIT study poses, and we need to answer, is how do we scale up some of these innovative pilot schemes for care leavers? Only when we do, can we finally improve the social capital of care-experienced young people, and, thus, their chances in life.


Further reading:

How do we improve outcomes for care leavers?

Measurement for performance improvement - in search of the golden thread

Three ways nudging can improve health outcomes


CJ Hamilton has been a key member of the recently completed EXploring Innovation in Transition (EXIT) Study led by Warwick Business School.

Human behaviour is at the heart of every business.  Learn more about behavioural science in the four-day Executive Education course Behavioural Science in the Real World at WBS London at The Shard.

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