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An 'Alternative Future' for young people should be one that is free from violence

Our Alternative Futures project aimed to understand how violence had affected the lives of young people in residential care across six European countries. Policy Manager Marion Macleod reflects on what we learned

Last week saw the culmination of two years of work between Children in Scotland and partners across Europe on the Alternative Future project, as the project team assembled in Edinburgh for our concluding conference.

The project worked with young people in residential care and the staff who look after them in six European countries. It aimed to understand better how violence had affected their lives, so that fuller support could be provided and more positive outcomes achieved.

Funding from the European Commission enabled the project to take place; the future of valuable collaborations of this kind remains uncertain while our post-Brexit relationship with Europe remains unresolved.

We have learned a lot from one another, but we have learned most from the 100+ young people and the 200+ residential care staff who willingly and generously shared their experiences and knowledge with us.

Some of what we learned was not particularly surprising – the adversity of the young people’s early lives, disordered attachment, disrupted relationships (far too often by bereavement), exposure to violence and abuse in multiple forms were widespread. Problems with mental health and emotional wellbeing, difficulties in forming and sustaining supportive relationships and challenges in engaging with learning were some of the (possibly predictable) consequences.

The young people gave us good advice about what could make their lives in care better – the importance of an understanding and knowledgeable workforce, being accepted and respected for who they were, giving them a place where they felt safe, consistency and stability, and skilled help to overcome the effect of previous difficulties. It was dispiriting, however, that many of their problems had been compounded by repeated re-admissions to care and placement moves, and how frequently the help received by their families to help avoid future problems was inadequate.

While we found residential care staff across Europe whose dedication and commitment to the young people they supported was inspiring, they, in too many cases, did not have the tools needed to do the best job possible. In particular, the specialised skills and knowledge needed to enable young people to overcome the impact of traumatic previous experience was not widely evident throughout the workforce.

The work we carried out and the actions we facilitated contributed to improving staff knowledge and to helping young people understand and deal with the challenges they faced.

Here in Scotland we were fortunate to have the City of Edinburgh Council as our operational partner. Staff and young people were both open and honest with us, even though the subject matter was highly sensitive, and we had excellent support from managers at all levels. The four-day staff training programme provided by the project on the specific topic of helping young people overcome the effect of trauma, based on the underpinning principles of social pedagogy, was very well received and empowered staff to reflect on their approaches and consider how they could best build relationships, even with young people whose behaviour showed high levels of distress.

Our final event was a real success. Alongside presentations and workshops by project partners, speeches from Jimmy Paul and Laura Beveridge, both care experienced adults, were not only hugely engaging but very moving.

There are many people to thank – the Life Changes Trust, that provided our match funding, the City of Edinburgh Council for its great support, the Scottish Government that was our associate partner, our European partners and all the staff and young people we spoke to.

The real challenge will be how to sustain and build on the work we started. The ‘Alternative Future’ we all look forward to is one where children live lives free from violence.

Marion Macleod is Policy Manager at Children in Scotland, and led the Scottish team that worked on the Alternative Future project.


Alternative Future

Alternative Future is a project aimed at improving the life chances of young people who have experienced violence.

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