[Interview] Mike Stein

Mike Stein is a research professor in the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York.

He has researched the problems and challenges faced by young people leaving care for 25 years and has published extensively in the field. He has also been consulted by government, local authorities and voluntary organisations on the development of leaving care services in the UK and internationally.

His books include What Works for Young People Leaving Care? (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2004); Leaving Care: Throughcare and Aftercare in Scotland (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005); Young People's Transitions from Care to Adulthood: International Research and Practice (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008) and Quality Matters in Children's Services: Messages from Research (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2009).

How did you first become involved in researching the challenges faced by young people living in, and leaving care?

I was working as a lecturer in applied social studies at Leeds University in 1978 and was asked by two social workers if I would help them to run a group for young people in care, the Leeds Ad-Lib group. They wanted someone from ‘outside’ of social services and I agreed.

I had, in the late 60s and early 70s, worked in probation, and then a children’s and social services department.

At my first meeting of Ad-lib, the topic was ‘leaving care’ and one young person asked, "What is it like after you leave care, where do you live, who will help you?"

There was silence from everyone in the room.

I thought I will go away and read up on this, but I couldn’t find anything at all.

As a group, we invited young people who had recently left care to come and talk about their lives after care – which proved both helpful and disturbing. And, in view of the lack of literature, I decided to write a research proposal to the ESRC which led to the first English study, published as Leaving Care (Stein and Carey) in 1986.

Since that time I have had continual funding and excellent staff researching the experiences, services and outcomes of young people as they make their journey from care to adulthood. Most recently this has included our international work Young People’s Transitions from Care to Adulthood: International Research and Practice.

What are the challenges faced by those providing services for young people living in and leaving care today?

The main challenges facing those responsible for providing services are:
  • First, providing all young people in care with the stability and continuity in their lives in order to enhance their well-being;
  • Second, that young people have opportunities to maximize their potential - personally, socially, educationally - given their often very poor starting points on entry to care;
  • Third, to ensure that they have more gradual and supported transitions from care to adulthood, more akin to the journey travelled by most young people – most of whom stay around the parental home until their mid 20s, and can still rely on their families for support (I have white hair to prove this!); finally, that young people, wherever they are living, have a more consistent high quality service – that they are not the victims of territorial injustices which may result in inequalities in life chances.

How do you think the media representation of social work and social care is affecting the profession?

Some of the ‘media representation’ is a gross ‘misrepresentation’. For example, the view of the state as an ‘awful parent’, reinforced by much of the press and recent television coverage, is a gross over-simplification which is not only wrong but also contributes to the circumstances in which vulnerable children may be put at greater risk by being left in their families. This simplistic view devalues and stigmatizes young people who live in care, as well as those who care for them. It may also make it more difficult to attract and recruit social workers to this very important work.

Research studies we have carried out during the last 25 years show that despite their very poor starting points, some care leavers will successfully ‘move on’ from care and achieve fulfilment in their personal lives and careers; a second group will ‘survive’ and do quite well, given assistance from skilled leaving-care workers: they may also move on successfully but it often takes longer. This leaves a third highly vulnerable group of young people who have a range of complex mental health needs and will require skilled assistance into, and during, adulthood.

Crude outcome statistics which are used to condemn the state in blanket fashion fail to recognise the progress made by young people, including major achievements, such as getting back into education after many years, furthering leisure interests and vocational skills, and, often for the first time, developing consistent, positive and trusting relationships with adults. But no outcome boxes to tick!

Can you tell me about your recent work, Quality Matters in children’s services: Messages from Research?

There has been a lot of attention paid to indicators and outcome measures in children’s services. But the quality of services has received far less priority – even though a body of research findings shows that the quality of care received by children and young people – the quality of relationships with their carers, and those that make those relationships happen - is strongly associated with their future well-being.

The Overview captures the learning from nine research studies focusing on very different topics. Each chapter includes: a discussion of the main findings; examples of promoting quality drawn from practice; the key implications for policy and practice; a summary of the integrated working issues arising from the research; and finally, questions for children’s services, identified at a strategic, operational and practice level.

The final chapter brings together those findings that either go across the nine studies, or have wider implications for the development of quality children’s services. This includes a discussion of the aims of children’s services, the quality of care and well-being, and social work practice and quality services. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how those working in children’s service can ‘make quality’ happen by: identifying and sustaining quality; collecting and modelling systematic data; carrying out quality assessments; developing integrated working; having coherent policies, procedures and processes; and, training and workforce issues.

What was the last book you read and what are you reading at the moment?

I often dip into books, especially about cricket, politics, beer and jazz – I play jazz piano, badly, drink real ale well, and the main side I support is my local Pudsey St. Lawrence cricket team!

I am currently reading two books, Towards the Light by A. C. Grayling which is about the struggles for liberty and rights. My son bought me this to assist with a social history I am writing, about the rights movement for young people in care.

I am also reading, Walking the Brittany Coast by Judy Smith, as I love walking, and am in year five of doing just that!

(c) Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010

This article was first published in the Jessica Kingsley Publishers Social Work Newsletter in June 2009

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