Foster care and user engagement in research

Nikki Luke, our guest blogger for this week, is the Research Officer at the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford. Nikki is an alumna of the University of Sussex, having recently completed her doctoral work in the Department of Psychology. The work of the Rees Centre, which has been set up in order to identify what works to improve the outcomes and life chances of children and young people in foster care, is of direct relevance to social work and we’re delighted to host Nikki’s post reflecting on her first few months with the Centre. Read more about the Rees Centre at

I recently completed my PhD in Psychology at the University of Sussex. For me, as for many Doctoral students, participants were the people I interviewed and tested, while I was the researcher who came up with the questions, ran the studies and interpreted the results. And then I saw a job advertisement.

What appealed to me from the beginning about the Rees Centre was its aim of engaging with the people who are the focus of its work. The Centre is headed by Professor Judy Sebba, who came to Oxford from the School of Education and Social Work at Sussex, where she has written about the need for user engagement in research. While I had made some effort towards this in the early stages of my PhD – by involving foster carers in a focus group session to see whether the research question I had formulated bore some resemblance to their day-to-day experiences – it wasn’t something I had carried throughout my work.

At the Rees Centre we’re doing it differently, by establishing systematic methods of consultation with foster carers, young people and practitioners at every stage of the research. What this means in practice is that firstly, we have experts we can turn to who can tell us whether we’re asking the right research questions. Working with those involved in foster care means we can identify the issues that they feel are most in need of answers.

Secondly, we are engaging service users at the point of data collection. Judy and I are currently recruiting a batch of foster carers who will work with the Centre as carer-interviewers. Not only can carers as participants often be more open with those who have shared similar experiences, as interviewers their own understanding of the situation means they can come up with questions that we as researchers would never have thought to ask. In future when we look at issues for young people we aim to have a similar arrangement with young care-leavers.

Finally, we are engaging carers, young people and practitioners in the interpretation of the results. ‘This is what we’ve found: how does that fit with your experience, and how can these findings be translated into something of practical use to you?’ – these are the questions we are asking. This is true not only for the original work we conduct, but also for our literature reviews. We know that social workers and foster carers have very busy lives – they don’t have the time to sit for days on end at a computer screen, trying to decipher whether something they’ve read is in line with the general consensus from the evidence and doing battle along the way with information access systems which would put Fort Knox to shame. So alongside our own research, we are keen to distill the key messages from existing work in a format that is accessible and useful for those they were intended to help.

The Rees Centre is still in the early stages of its journey into foster care research – but I’m confident we have some pretty good travelling companions to help us find the best routes.


November 19, 2012. Children & Young People, Social work research. Leave a comment.

Addressing Anti Social Behaviour in Emergency and Supported Housing in Brighton and Hove

Rachel Fitzpatrick is an MA Social Work student in the Department of Social Work at Sussex University. Prior to joining us on the programme Rachel worked as Caseworker for the Community Safety Case Work Team (CSCT) at Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC). Recently Rachel was nominated, and won, the Council’s Big Difference Award. Below she writes about the work that led to the award and what she’s learnt from both the project and the award.

Within my role as Caseworker for the CSCT I led on a project that worked with providers of Emergency and Supported Housing in the city to improve the management of Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) and reduce the harm it causes to local residents and the wider community.

The project began following a referral from a supported housing project where some of the tenants were causing ASB that had impacted on the local community. I worked closely with the project staff, delivered group sessions to the residents, worked with individuals identified as causing ASB and attended multi agency community meetings with affected local residents.

The success of this work, in reducing reports of ASB, led to a consideration of how it could function in other housing environments. The resources were collated and developed into training templates to be offered to staff and residents in a range of emergency and supported housing teams. Each time the package was delivered there were new challenges and intricacies that enabled the project to be developed further.

An important part of this project’s success was in building positive relationships with partner agencies such as, Sussex Police, Sussex Central YMCA, and the Emergency Placement Team (BHCC). The challenge here was to balance the needs and priorities of different agencies with that of community members and individual perpetrators whilst keeping in mind the overall aim of reducing ASB.

The project has been recognised by the Housing Commissioning services at BHCC as improving communication between local residents, the housing providers and BHCC and following the project a reduction of complaints about ASB from local residents have been noted. The CSCT has gone on to contribute to local policy on the prevention of eviction and the project has continued following my departure from the team.

Following this project I was nominated by my colleagues for the Council’s Big Difference Award. This award aims to recognise teams and individuals that have made a difference to the local community through innovative projects. Following a meeting with the Chief Exec of Brighton and Hove City Council this month, it was announced my team had won the award.

When I met the Chief Exec she asked ‘What motivates you?’ I found that my answer was surprisingly similar to that of other employees around the table who were from a range of disciplines and had varying levels of experience.

Common to the responses was autonomy: people valued good leadership and guidance but this had to be balanced with professional creativity and a feeling of agency in negotiating day-to-day decision making.

As a future Social Worker I feel there are some lessons to be learnt from this project and the subsequent award, which I would summarise as follows:
1. Effective partnership working can lead to better outcomes for services, individual service users and the wider community.
2. A holistic and creative approach is crucial to tackling and reducing the harm caused by ASB.
3. Practitioners can contribute and influence local policy and practice through their own work.
4. Recognition can further motivate staff and make them feel valued.
5. Feeling ownership and agency over practice is valued by staff from a variety of disciplines.

November 5, 2012. Social work practice. Leave a comment.