05 SES 01, Supporting Vulnerable Individuals
This article examines the life stories of adults in Israel who were defined as "children at risk" in their childhood and were sent by court order to therapeutic boarding schools on the grounds of "bad parenting," "neglect," or "abuse." Researching the stories of these adults is important in view of the fact that, surprisingly, it is almost impossible to locate studies of graduates of educational-therapeutic institutions for "children and youth at risk," and against the backdrop of forced removal from the family home, i.e. external intervention in the personal life story and the personal self-concept. Moreover, the interviews with graduates who have been educated in different decades since the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) can assist in achieving a complex understanding of the impact of various types of government welfare policies (or various cultural-governmental scenarios) on personal accounts and autobiographical descriptions.
Four main questions underlie this study: 1) How do the graduates integrate the life event (forced removal from the family home and education in a therapeutic boarding school) in their life story? 2) What characterizes the life story and career of the graduates since leaving the family home and being educated in a therapeutic boarding school? 3) How do graduates define and explain the concept of "risk" in relation to their selfhood and their life story, or how do they relate to the category of "child at risk" or "youth at risk" as adults? 4) Are there variations in the life stories of "children at risk" who have been educated in different decades and under differing welfare policies, or are varying governmental-cultural scenarios about "children at risk" reflected in the personal life stories of the graduates?
Three main theoretical frameworks reside at the foundation of these research objectives: the study of youth at risk; studies of graduates of therapeutic boarding schools and out-of-home placement; and the narrative model of Schutz and Luckmann (1974). A long series of studies on children and adolescents at risk exposes the marginal experiences of children and youth at risk, as well as the suspicion and existential distrust, and focus on the present and the internalization of aggression (Sulimani-Aidan and Benbenishty 2011). Studies conducted in various countries around the world reveal that youth who are graduates of out-of-home placement are uneducated and unemployed, suffer from lack of finances (Reilly, 2003), are involved in crime (Courtney & Dworsky, 2006), and a high proportion of them relative to their peers are addicted to drugs (Mason et al., 2003; McMillen & Tucker, 1999). A considerable percentage of them were homeless at some point (Courtney & Dworsky, 2006) and many of them suffer from more psychological struggles than their peers (Clare, 2006).
The narrative-phenomenological model that our study utilizes is proffered by Schutz and Luckmann (1974) with regard to the way in which individuals integrate different events in their life stories. This model offers three types of interpretation (or what Schutz and Luckmann call "biographical relevance"): thematic, interpretative, and motivational. The first interpretation examines the events that are recognized in the life story. The second, the way in which the subject interprets that life-event that is experienced as distinct. The third clarifies the place of the event in the subject's life story and its relation to other life-decisions in his/her life-world. In other words, there is an attempt here to clarify the power of the biographical event and the motivational force that propels life-actions. Motivational relevance is described as an interpretation that can transform the self-evident life sphere of the subject.
The study is based on in-depth interviews with 30 graduates of therapeutic boarding schools that were educated in various decades from the establishment of the State of Israel (1948) to the present day. The contact with the graduates was initiated by contacting various therapeutic boarding schools and advertising in various arenas (Facebook, community centers, and welfare offices in local municipalities). Sixty-seven percent of the graduates were removed by court order and 33% by the recommendation of social workers while persuading the parents and without the need for a court order. Sixty-three percent of them are women and 37% are men, ranging in age from 22 to 55. Most of them are engaged in jobs that do not require higher education ("blue collar"). The subjects were interviewed in places that they suggested (coffee shops and their private homes). The structure of the interview included several key parts: life story ("If you had to describe your life story, how would you describe it? Anything that comes to mind, with as much time as you need. It is important for me to emphasize that for me there are no correct or incorrect answers, This is your personal life story."); self-concept (e.g., "How do you define yourself?"); the course of life after completing a boarding school education ("Describe the course of your life upon completion of studying and living at a boarding school"); the concept of risk (e.g., "How do you define the concept of ‘risk’? Did you think your life was ‘at risk’?); and direct questions about living in an out-of-home setting. All the interviews were encoded through thematic analysis (Strauss 1978).
The research findings demonstrate how adults not only experience the forced removal from the family home as a life event that has shattered their phenomenological self-evidence and their "natural position" (motivational interpretation in the terms of Schutz and Luckmann 1974), but rather they report a unique life story structure that includes a biographical nadir ("You cannot be any lower than that"). This life story structure emphasizes the importance of regular linear progress as an expression of the "good life" since then, and the ambivalence with regard to the State (and the boarding school), which rescued them and revived them. At the same time, the life-story characteristics include a constant reflexive preoccupation with the fear of "going backwards" to the biographical low point, the continuing need to understand the parents' decisions in light of their living conditions, and the need to invent (in the absence of familiar role models or cultural scenarios) and establish a creative attitude to critical concepts like “good parenting" and "feelings toward the parents." Finally, the concept of risk is not depicted by graduates only as a description of an "objective" situation from their past, but also as "subjectivity" that they are regularly engaged in ontologically, even in adulthood and present life. In this way their contemporary self-concept is portrayed as including two self-types that exist simultaneously under the self-definition of "the self of an adult who was a child at risk in the past. The discussion section describes the unique characteristics of the graduates’ life story structure, compared to the common structures in the research literature (Gergen and Gergen, 1988; Shoshana, 2014), the phenomenological experience of several types of self associated with different times, and the implications of using the term "risk" or what we call, "Can we eliminate being a 'youth at risk'?
Courtney, M. E., & Dworsky, A. (2006). Early outcomes for young adults transitioning from out of home care in the U.S.A.. Child and Family Social Work, 11, 209-219. Clare, M. (2006). Personal reflections on needs and services for young people leaving care: From local to international to national (1996-2005). Children Australia, 31 (3), 11-17. Gergen, K. and Geregen, M. (1986). Narrative form and the construction of psychological science. In: T.R. Sarbin, (Ed). Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct. New York: Prager, pp. 22-44. Reilly, T. (2003). Transition from care: Status and outcomes of youth who age out of foster care. Child Welfare, 82, 727-746. Schutz, A., and Luckman, T. (1974). The Structure of the Life-world. London: Heinemann. Shoshana, A. (2013). Translating a National Grand Narrative into Personal Story: Alternative Biographies among Siblings in Everyday Life. Narrative Inquiry 23(1): 171-191. Strauss, A. (1978). Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists. New York: Cambridge University Press. Sulimani-Aidan, Y., & Benbenishty, R. (2011). Future expectations of adolescents in residential care in Israel. Children and Youth Service Review, 33, 1134-1141.
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