Strengthening connections & relationships project
Written by Lynne McPherson
What is this research about?
Young people in residential care face major challenges that can prevent them from forming healthy relationships and a strong personal identity, which are critical building blocks for their wellbeing and safety. This research aims to understand the practices that help young people living in therapeutic residential care to have a positive self-identity and to form strong, healthy relationships.
Young people living in residential care face complex and persistent challenges in forming and maintaining positive, safe and lasting relationships. Trust is a critical factor given early exposure to unsafe caregiver/child relationships. Whilst in care, young people, often experience high staff turnover and may continue to experience violence and abuse in unsafe residential care settings. Consequently, this impacts their ability to regulate emotions, manage behaviours, and form and maintain relationships with others. As a result, the life trajectory for care-experienced young people remains highly precarious, with care leavers more likely than their non-care-experienced peers to have poor educational outcomes, significant and prolonged mental health and substance abuse problems, risk of unemployment and entrenched criminal justice system involvement. The social capital critical to succeeding in getting and keeping a job, for example, is limited when the capacity to form positive connections is impaired. Similarly, the absence of recognition (in this study, understood as mutual experiences of being cared about, respected and valued) impacts positive identity formation, resulting in poor self-esteem, self-respect and self-confidence, which are also critical for successful transitions from care. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander care leavers continue to be significantly over-represented in the out-of-home care system in Australia. Helpful relationships and social connections do not develop in isolation, and for Indigenous children and children from culturally diverse backgrounds, cultural safety is pivotal to their sense of wellbeing.
These outcomes for young people with complex trauma in residential care settings have led to the introduction of a raft of policy and program interventions, including, most recently, ‘therapeutic residential care’ In Australia, ‘therapeutic residential care’ (TRC) (also referred to as ‘intensive therapeutic care’ in NSW) is a relatively new concept, offered in several states and territories, delivered by government and non-government organisations and funded by the relevant state department.
Purported as breaking new ground in responding to vulnerable young people who have experienced trauma, the aim of therapeutic residential care in Australia is to create “positive, safe, healing relationships” and experiences informed by a sound understanding of trauma, damaged attachment and developmental needs”. A growing body of evidence supports such an approach, highlighting that effective, trusting relationships are integral to a felt sense of safety and security. Such security, along with strong, positive social connections, potentially enhances the likelihood of positive therapeutic outcomes and successful transition from care. However, a critical gap in the current evidence base informing therapeutic residential care is around the actual practices within and beyond the immediate care environment that enable or constrain the development of these relationships.
The Research Team
The research team is led by Associate Professor Lynne McPherson working with Professor Anne Graham, Dr Kathomi Gatwiri and Dr Meaghan Vosz at Southern Cross University’s Centre for Children and Young People. They are joined by leading international researchers Associate Professor Tim Moore from Australian Catholic University’s Centre for Child Protection Studies, Dr Donnah Anderson of Charles Sturt University, and Professor Robbie Gilligan of Trinity College in Dublin. Industry experts Dr Joe Tucci and Janise Mitchell have partnered to co-fund the project. They are recognised internationally as thought leaders and advocates for children, holding extensive experience in child protection and working therapeutically with children and young people in out of home care systems across Australia. Dr Tucci is the CEO of the Australian Childhood Foundation. Ms Mitchell is the Director of the Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care (CETC), a division of the Australian Childhood Foundation.
Research Aim and Phases
Building on such evidence, this study aims to examine the interpersonal practices that contribute to positive identity formation in therapeutic residential care contexts, as well as the institutional practices (policies, systems, processes) that enable or constrain the structural conditions necessary for building trust, healthy social connections, cultural safety, positive help-seeking behaviours and opportunities to contribute to the community.
For the first time, this research will ask young people, workers, therapeutic specialists and managers in therapeutic residential care (intensive therapeutic care) about the practices used to support young people to develop trusting relationships, what helps and what gets in the way. This is the first large-scale mixed-methods study in Australia to capture the views and experiences of young people and staff in therapeutic residential care about the practices that enable and constrain positive, trusting relationships and social connections within and beyond the immediate care setting.
The Research Team recently commenced the initial engagement phase, which includes establishing mechanisms to work alongside and consulting with people who have relevant expertise, including lived experience. Concurrent to the engagement phase (which extends across the life of the project), this research will address the research aim and questions in four steps.
Each phase builds on findings in the previous step following an iterative analytical process. The research is founded on a person-centred human rights approach characterised by profound respect for the other throughout each phase. This is also reflected in the peer participatory principles inherent in the study design and implementation, as outlined earlier, and activated with the express intent of improving understanding and practices in therapeutic residential care.
Who are we looking for to help us right now?
We are looking for three kinds of research advisor/co-designers to help us design and conduct research that has purpose, integrity and makes an impact:
- Cultural advisors: will help to re(frame) how we see research problems, how we relate and our research practice. We will work with you to ensure the research is informed by cultural knowledge, is inclusive, accessible and responsive to the interests of First Nations young people in therapeutic residential care.
- Research advisors: will help to steer the research and outcomes, advising on approaches that will have the greatest impact.
- Research co-designers: will get involved with designing research interviews, surveys, and communications to influence how we do the research and the resources we produce.
If you have lived experience in therapeutic residential care in NSW or Victoria, or have worked in ITC or a related policy role, we would like to talk with you about becoming a research advisor/co-designer. If you identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and have an interest in out-of-home care, then we would like to talk with you about becoming a cultural advisor.
Why is this research important? What difference will it make?
When the research is complete, we will work with advisors to develop resources to improve the practices of therapeutic residential care. As a result, young people leaving care will have the right support for a solid foundation of personal identity and relationships into the future.
Want to know more?
Contact Research Fellow Meaghan Vosz on firstname.lastname@example.org