Assessing outcomes : a social psychological interpretation of life course trajectories for young people leaving care
This study explores the experiences of young people who have been 'looked after' during the transitional period in which they leave 'care', moving on to live independently. The emphasis is on making visible the way in which young people are active in their lives; interacting with, rather than submitting to the social environment they operate within. Drawing upon life course theory (Elder,1997) taking an interactional biographical approach (Runyan, 1982); historical time and place are considered, particularly in relation to the social timing of life events. Of paramount importance is the notion of 'linked lives' where developmental pathways and life course trajectories are seen to be located within past transitions. Drawing upon feminist empiricist and feminist postmodernist thinking, a multi-methods approach to data collection is used. Initially, aggregate data for the 150 young people, eligible to receive leaving care services within the Local Authority, was made available for analysis. Structured interviews with 38 young people were completed. Fourteen young people, aged 16-18 when the research commenced, were included in the biographical phase of the research. In this phase, in-depth information about their unique life experiences was documented over a period of 12-18 months. It was found, in line with previous research, that care leavers experienced a much earlier transition to independent living, continual accommodation moves and high levels of unemployment (60-70%). The Leaving Care Scheme's risk assessment showed the largest proportion of young people categorised as 'high risk (44%). However, leaving care provision was not accessed by 35% of those young people eligible to receive services. The 'stories' told in depth reveal the way in which past experiences and past transitions can be seen to shape and direct life course trajectories; progressing the view that outcome evaluation is limited in utility when not viewed as part of an integrated whole. An ideological account of independence had consequentiality in terms of 'social timing' also operating as a barrier which distanced young people from leaving care services. There is considerable evidence in the research of young people as active agents. Such 'agency was always located within personal and situational contexts where differing levels of personaVinterpersonal action and compliance can be observed. The findings suggest that outcome evaluations are of limited use, and a focus on studies which accommodate life as a continuum, a series of 'linked states' where beginnings and endings are not so clearly defined would offer more informative representations of young people's 'post-care' lives. Leaving care policy makers and practitioners should reflect upon the consequentiality of the ideology with which they engage; aiming to foster more comprehensively a favourable social environment but one where young people are not seen exclusively as submitting to social conditions.