A different view

We’re back after a bit of break following the summer and the always hectic autumn term, with a wonderful post from our postgrad public engagement ambassador Rachel Larkin, on the unexpected and insightful moments of social work practice. Dust off your trainers and practice your hook shots, you never know when they will come in handy.

A few weeks ago I went to visit a young person in their residential placement. I was expecting a chat over a fruit juice, but found myself out in the garden playing basketball. Now, when I say playing, I should say failing. At one point there were people lined up watching me miss. The young person was remarkably patient and even tried to give me lessons but I still missed every time. I started to worry he might make himself sick laughing.

It was one of the best afternoons I’ve had at work in a long while, but I was aware of a nagging anxiety on the way back. It wasn’t my hopeless aim that unsettled me (no surprise there) but my reaction to seeing how differently the young person behaved in that environment. I’ve been reading a lot of theories about situated identity lately, which consider how differently we can act, and feel, in different times and spaces. I’d gone to the placement hoping to see another side to this young man, very aware that I’d only met him in offices and interview rooms. So why, armed with all that theory and practice experience, was I surprised by what I saw?

What made me uncomfortable was realising how solid my picture of the young man had become, but how limited it was. The expectation that I should fully understand every young person’s views had created a sort of false confidence. When you are making significant decisions about someone’s life, as you often are in social work, it’s far more comfortable to allow yourself to think that you have a clear sense of who they are and what they need. The alternative is rarely available within the processes we follow – the option of saying “I don’t think we know enough about this young person, let’s delay this decision” is difficult to achieve, even for someone in a position of relative authority in the organisation. The pressure to act can propel us forward, even when our instincts might tell us to slow down and think it through.

If I was kind to myself, I might say that I had gone to see him precisely because of those instincts – a sense that I was missing something. Changing the setting, and changing the activity, allowed us both to reveal a different aspect of ourselves. I got to know more about what he wants in life and he got to witness the World’s Worst Basketball Player in action. I would say it was a win-win but the score was more like 99-0. We both agreed that I should definitely stick to social work.


December 9, 2014. Children & Young People, Social work practice. Leave a comment.

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 http://reescentre.education.ox.ac.uk

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.

Children’s privacy: a gatekeeper to children’s rights in Greece

By Sevasti-Melissa Nolas

Greek newspaper To Vima reported late last night of some less than sanguine developments for children’s rights and the welfare of children and their families in Greece.

It has come to light that Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros has requested from the Greek Ministry of Interior (the equivalent of the British Home Office) for the exact data of “foreign infants and young children, by country of origin, who are in nursery schools” in Greece.

To Vima’s headline reads “Taking a leaf out of Herod’s book” and the request follows earlier demands made by the party for the relevant information of immigrants’ use of health services in the country. Both requests appear to follow alarming pre-election statements that “if Golden Dawn are elected to parliament, we will storm hospitals as well as nurseries, and we will throw illegal immigrants and their children on the streets”, and a rise in incidents of violence against immigrants in the country in the last six months.

Under Greek law nurseries ensure the right of access to all children irrespective of nationality, religion or gender and linguistic, racial or social group. This right of access ensures that children’s rights under the UNCRC, of which Greece is a signatory, are preserved.

The latest developments, if enforced by the Ministry of Interior and acquiesced by pan-Hellenic municipalities, would open the doors for the violation of a raft of rights under the UNCRC. As well as a direct violation of children’s rights to privacy, a violation of their rights to non-discrimination, to education, to benefits from social security and to protection from violence would surely follow.

At the same time, if children’s data was connected to that of their families, parents’ and siblings’ rights would also be jeopardize. Should the absurd plan of collecting data on immigrant infants and children be actioned these families, many of which have made Greece their home, would face difficult decisions about whether or not to stay in the country under the threat of explicit discrimination, violence and abuse from the far right. This would make the Greek State solely responsible, in one fowl swoop, for reneging on its duties of care and protection, which are already patchy at the best of times, for its most vulnerable charges.

According to To Vima article, it is reported that some nurseries are already receiving ‘urgent’ requests from the ministry to hand over infant and child data. There are glimmers of hope however, as it is also reported in the same article that pedagogues, in Crete for example, are resisting the ministry’s request arguing unequivocally that they “will not hand over data of infants to neo-Nazis who openly threaten them”.

It was exactly two weeks ago that the Greek Citizen’s Ombudsman (O Synigoros tou Polite) held a one-day event, following its April report to the UNCRC on the state of children’s rights in Greece. The event focused on defending children’s rights in Greece in times of crisis and amongst other things it was noted that immigrant children, children of refugees, Roma children and children of other ethnic minorities were especially vulnerable to further marginalization in the current economic crisis.

Recommendations set out to the UNCRC for the improvement of children’s rights in Greece included a plethora of action points for the general improvement of child welfare and child protection in the country, as well as recognizing the importance of children’s right to privacy. The latter point was made in relation to educating the media of children’s rights to a private life. Perhaps, given yesterday’s reports, the Ombudsman will need to start by educating its own government first.

Dr Sevasti-Melissa Nolas is an academic working at the University of Sussex’s Department of Social Work. Her research focuses on children’s participation rights and youth development, with an emphasis on their implications for social action, social innovation and social justice. She is also a Greek living in London with her husband, and amongst other things, worrying about the developments back home.

October 11, 2012. Children & Young People, Internationalisation. 1 comment.