Bringing the theories to life: why we interviewed children and families

Posted by Douglas Dowell / Monday 25 November 2013 / Cost of living Case studies The Red Book

For this year’s Red Book, we’ve spoken directly to some of the families we work with to get their views on what life is like for them in 2013.

I interview a lot of people in our services around the UK, and it’s always an eye-opening experience. But the focus is usually on a one-off conversation about their experience with us, and how our service made a difference.

For this year’s Red Book, we’ve spoken directly to some of the families we work with to get their views on what life is like for them in 2013. I have interviewed nine young people and parents regularly since early 2012 to find out about the challenges they face, the hopes they have for their future and their aspirations for their children. That information then feeds into the Red Book.

Working with the Red Book families has been different from most of the interviews I carry out. I’ve been able to take more time to ask what would really change things for them. And as a result, I like to think I understand a few things better than I did before.

So for instance, one care leaver showed me just how much a variety of services – such as housing, employment and social services – struggle with what he calls ‘in-between’ support.  He didn’t want and doesn’t need full-on crisis support, but he did want a helping hand in some situations, and the system didn’t seem to be flexible enough to offer that. The result was that he often found things much harder than they needed to be.

In theory, I knew that families usually do better if the people who are there to support them don’t keep changing. But then one mother told me how upset she was when her social worker changed jobs. She’d built up a good relationship with him, and her distress made the theory real to me.

I think the Red Book is much stronger through being informed by these experiences, and hopefully you’ll see that in this year’s version. There are, however, some risks with this sort of work. For a start, we sometimes found ourselves drowning in the sheer volume of information we’d gathered! We had hundreds of pages of written-up interviews by the time this year’s Red Book came to be drafted.

Despite that, it still didn’t mean we could assume we knew everything about the families lives. One throwaway comment in the last interview I did with one person suddenly explained why she had been so eager to move house – I hadn’t understood why until that point, and it took time to get to the point where she felt able to tell me.  It reminded me that just because we knew more than usual, we didn’t know everything.

We also found that, as people’s lives moved on and their circumstances changed, they couldn’t always carry on being interviewed.  That reflects the difficulties many of our families face: as their lives became more chaotic or as support networks reduced and people found they were no longer eligible for help, they drifted out of contact.

In some ways, the tracking exercise has been a messy one.  We learned quite a bit as we went along. We’ve also had to make some difficult trade-offs to make the whole thing work – balancing the number of people we interviewed against the number of times we could interview them.

But it’s added something different and valuable – both to our policy work and to our experience of engaging with the people we’re here for. And from my point of view, it’s taught me quite a bit about things I thought I already knew.

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