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The Study In Action
The Transitions Study started interviews for this research. This involved three structured interviews and three qualitative interviews with each young person, and interviews with a person they considered most knowledgeable about them (PMK).
Several organisations took on the challenge of becoming involved in this exciting youth research programme and they are now keen to share their experiences as part of recognising the huge contribution youth made to the study and also to encourage other organisations that work with youth to consider becoming involved in research in the future.
The organisations who have participated in these reflections are:
Smita joined Youthline in 2008 in variety of roles, and has been involved in the resilience and transitions research since the first interviews in 2009. In her own words Smita admits the research role has "probably changed her life." One of the moments that had "the biggest impact" on her was interviewing young people in a youth justice residence. Despite the stigma that can surround such facilities, and the label of 'criminal behaviour', she couldn't have been welcomed more warmly. As she was talking with some of the young people, she was struck by the thought that "Actually I'm a person and you're a person and that's what we are, and that's how we're talking to each other." And she adds "It's amazing how much that can be missed." She was also taken back by the fact that "these weren't just people, at that point when we met they were children, yet they were kind of being seen in the wide world as bad people, that were expected to have adult capabilities and make decisions when actually for most of them I thought they had ended up in this situation. There wasn't this big intent. They weren't hardened criminals. So it was a big shock to the system. And I think that from then it opened up a part of my life, wondering how we could change these messages and the little impact I can make as one person in the way that I am. That was quite an eye-opener for me."
She has noticed that as the participants have grown older and the research has progressed from the survey interviews into the qualitative interviews, the relationships have changed. "They actually want to be involved, they actually want to tell their stories. They like that we're tracking them down every year and we're saying we're going to follow them up and we do." Smita thinks part of their willingness may be the fact the interviews are non-judgemental. There is no expectation of having to achieve anything, it's more of a "conversation" and "being able to speak in their own words...to tell their story."
It seemed to her that many of the positive changes the young people made were facilitated by a strong relationship with someone, or a life event like a job or having a baby.
Listening to the young people has changed her, not so much as she says "in terms of employment" but "in personal characteristics." "Being straight up, being genuine, just doing what you say you're going to do is a massive thing." It feels "a little disappointing" to her "that it is as simple as this", but also "warming in that everyone has a bit of power to change things."
Katie has coordinated the Youthline research since 2010, often interviewing young people and finding them for subsequent interviews. She also found her research role was an emotional one, saying that after an interview "sometimes I have my own private [cry] in the car."
"So many of these young people have got really lovely hearts, you know. They really have lovely hearts." Even in the most difficult situations like prison, she says "You don't have to peel back far either. One or two layers and then there's this vulnerable 12-13 year old. If things could have been different at that time, they wouldn't have been in that spot, in that moment doing something really stupid.... that they know now is stupid....they've ended up involved in something..... that wasn't their brainchild. They were just there. I can see that."
Support has been a key factor in turning those situations around. Many of the young people talked about someone who had "stuck by them." While the advice took different forms, like 'Look where you're going...' or 'You're better than this', it always seemed to Katie that the support focused on "the behaviour rather than the person. And that made it so much more achievable."
This has reinforced to her the importance of 'stickability', "that staying power, to look past the naughty, naughty behaviour and see it for what it is." In her opinion - "it's a defence mechanism for sure. They need those walls, they need that protection - that's how they're gotten this far."
It usually seemed to Katie that the social workers/support people the young people found most helpful were those who took "some time for conversation, [and] just getting to know them." Without that humanistic connection first, it could seem to the young person like social workers merely "dropped into" their lives to organise them and the people around them, which did not always seem to work or last.
It was also clear from the young people that practical help was really needed and appreciated. Katie noted that organisations who helped in practical ways and followed through with promises were remembered more warmly. The need to "follow through" came from the young people, as they had often been let down in the past. Katie also believes strongly in the importance of having "something good to hook into. They might not know what's out there, and they just need someone to help them hook in."
As Katie says the young people's stories still "sit with me. Lots of them have high aspirations. They don't lack hope. They want to do it differently, as adults, you know." She acknowledges "Change is hard work. You can do it consciously when you're not under stress ...[but] most of the young people we interviewed are under incredible stress.... But I am continually amazed - not at whether they can do the hard work or not, nobody can know, but that they can look at it as the possibility...that they haven’t been completely beaten down by their experiences. That hopefulness amazes me... but their lives have already been hard, hard work... so why not try doing the hard work to improve your life. They're used to hard work, so maybe they'll be fine."
Antonia joined Youthline in 2009 and has been coordinating, finding and interviewing young people since the project began. Despite being overseas right now she readily admits “The young people have a special place in my heart. I still think about them. I have learnt so much from them. They are incredibly open and genuine with us. That’s such an amazing gift, especially when you consider a lot of the questions we ask are pretty personal. I love how our young people are so ‘real’ and straight up – it’s very refreshing.”
Something that really stood out for Antonia was the importance of appreciating the young people and believing in them. It seemed to her that when social services hadn’t worked well for young people, they had treated them as ‘naughty’ and not had faith in them to succeed. She felt the young people picked up on this. “Many of them have been through some really rough times and they’re really observant and in tune with people. They can tell when people are being genuine or not. We have these awesome relationships with our young people and I think it is because we believe in them, we hold them in high-esteem and they can see that.”
Finding some of the interviewees as they years went on was a challenge sometimes, but they were always thrilled when they found them. “It’s so important that they can share their story. And they can see that we really care about them and what they have to say." Something that surprised Antonia was that for some of the young people, the interviews with us were "the only times they’ve talked openly about their experiences.” It’s the reason she is so passionate about the project. “It’s because the voices of these young people are being heard and hopefully this will help us improve social services for young people.”She says she absolutely loved working on the project. “It’s been such a privilege. I have learnt so much from our amazing young people.”
Glenda is the Clinical Services Manager at Youthline, Auckland. The research has "impacted on how we work with young people generally." she says. For example developing the tenacity to find interviewees year after year has been really worthwhile for staff and the young people.
Amber who has been supervising the staff doing the interviews, also agrees. "They're still genuinely surprised that when we say we're going to see them next year, that we do." she says. "They're so appreciative".
As the years go by she feels this effort and interest has become "increasingly significant for the young people." Glenda has noticed that for many of them "reflecting on where they were in past years and how [they] have progressed has been very powerful. That has been a huge learning for us." she says.
Reviews of case files from various organisations have shown that young people are often referred on, rather than worked with, and follow up and documentation is lacking. The negative impact of this inconsistency was evident in what the young people said.
One of "the absolute strengths of the study" Amber says "is that it is the young people's experiences" and that need for consistency and follow up "really shone as one of the things that was absolutely key."
For her the research has been "a huge opportunity to understand the longer term impact [of services]" and one the staff have really valued. "They really treasure the stories.... they are really, really attached to the young people."
Resilience Research Centre NZ - Youth Research Site 2013