Community? What do you mean?
An investigation into how differing understandings of the term 'community' shapes care leavers' move to independence.

Start date: February 2012
End date: October 2012
Principal Investigator: Dr Sarah Goldingay
Co-Investigators: Dr Robin Durie, Dr Katrina Wyatt

On face value, community seems like a simple word: one that we all understand. But, if we start to ask questions about how we or others might think about their own communities, or the idea of community in a wider sense, we begin to realise that it is far from straight forward. Instead, it can stand for a complex range of social, political, religious and economic networks of people, places and concerns. How we think about it is shaped by our own life experience.

The project concerns two different communities who are working together to create a new community. The research team will be collaborating with Devon County Council's Children in Care Scheme [DCCCCS], and the young people they work with, to better understand a crucial moment in these young peoples lives: the time when they leave care to live as independent adults. Young people who are in care have been ejected by their communities. They have left their birth families and, through the process of being fostered, are often removed from the immediate community they grew up in. This leads to changes in schools, the ending of friendship groups and links with birth family members. These transitions are problematic, and tend to be a chaotic period of time. When these same young people then leave foster care to live independently this rite of passage is particularly challenging. Their disrupted and often traumatic early lives mean they are operating from an insecure emotional base, and struggle to build positive and safe relationships in new communities.

Moreover, for most of these children, leaving care is a very final event with no option to return 'home' if they face challenging situations. In response, their tendency is to seek out others who share their life experience. This often results in communities who share powerful and potentially overwhelming emotional needs, and who can find themselves unable to give or receive what is needed. These new communities can often be unstable and become a place of conflict. During this time, in addition to issues caused by a lack of independent living skills, research has shown care leavers commonly experience three difficulties in securing their independence: isolation from former communities, accommodation breakdown due to problem behaviour and wider problems around mental/emotional health which impacts on their ability to cope with independent living. In this situation the young people's notion of community, and how they find a new community to move into is tested, often to the point of collapse. This case study will work with both groups to better understand the processes at work and facilitate a proactive evaluation of that is taking place. It will then become the spine of a review which seeks to enable the academy and policy makers to gain a clearer understanding of how vulnerable, young people think about community and how this shapes how they see themselves.

This project will have four phases to examine what is happening during this transition to independence. (1) It will interview both the young people and DCCCCS team members about their understanding of community and contextualise this by critiquing contextualising documentation used by policy makers (a process that will be repeated in the second, third and fourth phases). (2) It will use this data to facilitate a series of workshops and seminars facilitated by Exstream Theatre Company (specialists working with 'at risk' youth) tailored to meet the differing needs of (i) the young people and (ii) the DCCCCS team. These will lead to (i) a performance and (ii) a report tailored towards service providers about the idea of community. (3) A two-day seminar will brings the two groups together: the young people will perform their work, the DCCCCS team will present on their paper and collectively we will reflect on our experience, evaluate the process and plan for future collaborations. (4) We will reflect upon and share our findings via the review and papers.