The power of group peer support and relationships for young people in and leaving care
Carefree’s mission statement is ‘giving young people in and leaving care the chance to do things for themselves and others’. This means we work with young people who are in and leaving care to promote individual resilience and independent living skills. But that’s not all we do. Crucially we also enable young people to support their peers, work together in groups and develop the relational skills of peer support and empathy.
Carefree began in 2005 when I was a foster carer who mainly gave a home to teenagers. My professional background had been in youth work and I was surprised at how little social interaction and community education was being done with young people in care. Everything seemed to be one to one and adult to child. The young people I fostered experienced, between them, in addition to a social worker and an Independent Reviewing officer, a range of adults including a therapist, an Independent Visitor, a sessional worker, a one to one outdoor instructor, a counsellor and a social work assistant, all of whom met them on a one to one basis and did some great, but very individual, work.
I became more and more convinced that some youth and community work, where young people could meet peers, learn from one another and participate in deciding on how they were helped, was much needed for my foster daughters and the young people living with other foster carers in my area.
First, I fed back to my colleagues in youth work that I thought that young people in care were missing out on youth work opportunities. I was really taken aback by some of the responses. There was suspicion, fear and general unwillingness to engage with a group of young people almost all of the workers I spoke to saw as ‘other’. One worker said to me ‘we don’t work with young people in care because they’ve all got social workers’ and another said ‘we only work with Universal young people’… it took years for the irony of that statement to dawn on me.
My next step, and the right one as it turned out, was to go direct to young people themselves. Through early 2005 a ‘planning group’, including my two foster daughters, grew until by early summer it numbered six young people. Generously housed by an outdoor education centre in Cornwall, BF Adventure, we explored together what a youth work programme for young people in care might look like and what the problems might be.
There was general agreement that whatever we did had to be fun, got young people in care together to meet one another and treated young people as equal partners in developing the activities. Together we developed a summer holiday programme that offered outdoor activities, art, overnight camping and a range of independent living challenges. This included shopping and cooking for one another and navigating around Cornwall in small groups using public transport.
The basic plans for the programme were straightforward to develop, but the group recognised that one of the biggest challenges would be to engage participants in the first place. Their own experience had been that they hadn’t been able to turn up to things where they didn’t know anybody, and together we agreed that other young people coming on the programme would benefit from a ‘peer mentoring’ approach whereby they had the opportunity to meet members of the organising group of young people first. Developing the principles of what the peer mentor role would look like together, by July 2005 the young people were ready to go out with me to meet young people, tell them about what we were planning and ask them if they wanted to be involved.
In the last twelve years we have developed the practices of group work, led by peer mentors who enable accessibility, across a range of activity so diverse it has included fishing, badminton, choirs and filmmaking. The essential principle, however, remains the same; our work is relational, gives young people in and leaving care responsibility for others and places them as active participants rather than passive recipients of care. The ideas we co-created have been refined and developed, and from 14 young people that first summer, Carefree now engages with over 300 young people in care in Cornwall per year. We employ youth workers, social workers and health professionals and at least 25% of our staff team are care experienced.
Interestingly, we began with practice and gradually developed a theoretical understanding, based in research, for ‘why’ it seemed to work. We have formulated a ‘theory of change’ (without at first understanding that that was what we were doing) based on the idea that if a child’s first group, their family, was a challenging place for them, they may pattern that challenge into other groups – school, work and adult family relationships. Our intervention was, then, to enable them, through peer support, to ‘get better’ at being in safe healthy groups. Once we saw that it worked, we began to stumble across the theory for why that should be. For example, Brown (2008) articulates as we did that:
‘The first group most of us experience is the family group(s) we are part of in childhood.’
Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory (1986) backed up our practice observation that identity and a sense of self are modulated through belonging to groups; the role of the group worker in Carefree is always to ensure that however challenging a group session can be, young people gain and develop because of their participation.
The understanding of attachment as a human developmental (and lifelong) need has underpinned Carefree’s work significantly, even before we understood that was what we were doing. Fahlberg (1991, 13) identifies that attachment relationships:
‘…serve the primary purpose of providing safety and protection…and in humans…these interpersonal connections provide for socialisation and stimulation of intellectual development. Throughout an individual’s lifetime, attachments provide connections to others and help us develop a sense of self.’
Schneider et al (2001) show a direct correlation between parental attachment experiences and childhood peer relationships. In these terms, the findings of our ‘research in practice’ indicate that associational, group-based youth and community models have the capacity to repair and rebuild relational skills in adolescents.
In conclusion then, the story of Carefree is one where practice was seen to work and so we went looking for the theory to explain why, found evidence to support our approach and are now building on it. Carefree continues to grow and develop and we now deliver a range of services, but at the heart of our work is peer relationship, leadership by young people in and leaving care and a new chance to learn how to be part of a safe group. We believe that learning how to have strong friendships in a safe environment increases the likelihood that care-experienced young people will go on to identify what a safe relationship is as they move into adulthood.
About the author
Mari Eggins is a youth worker, teacher, former foster carer and adoptive parent from Cornwall. The founding worker at Carefree Cornwall, she gained an MA in Professional Enquiry last year from the University of St Mark and St John; her dissertation was titled ‘Risk and Resilience; investigating the impact of associational and group work with young people in and leaving care’.
Brown A (2002) ‘Groupwork’ in Davies M (ed) (2008) The Blackwell Companion to Social Work. Oxford: Blackwell Press.
Fahlberg V (Ed.) (1991) A Child's Journey Through Placement. London: BAAF.
Schneider BH, Atkinson L and Tartuf C (2001) ‘Child-parent attachment and children's peer relations: a quantitative review’. Developmental Psychology 37 (1) 86-100.
Tajfel H and Turner JC (1986) ‘The social identity theory of intergroup behaviour’ in Jost JT and Sidanius J (ed) (2004) Key Readings in Social Psychology: Political Psychology. New York: Psychology Press.