Once a youth in care, Melanie Doucet is now an SSHRC Doctoral Fellow, a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholar, and a PhD student at McGill University. She is leading ‘Relationships Matter’, a collaborative project that aims to take a closer look - through the power of images and accompanying stories - at supportive relationships in the lives of young people from care, and how those relationships can be developed and nurtured over time.
Why this project?
I aged out of New Brunswick’s child welfare system, and have a longstanding interest in how we can improve outcomes for youth in and from care. I had read the Broken Promises report about Alex Gervais's death, and looked into several cases of young people dying just before or shortly after aging out, and it stood out to me was that there was virtually no one for these kids to rely on for long-term support; the relationships in their lives were typically short-lived, paid for, and unfulfilling.
While much attention has been given to the negative side of things, I want to use a different lens and examine the supportive relationships young people from care have, and how these relationships can be developed and nurtured over time.
How will the project run?
The participants, my co-researchers, will be a group of 7-10 young adults (19-29) who have aged out of care and are living in the Greater Vancouver area. They will receive digital cameras, training from a local photographer who has worked with youth in care, and will develop photography skills to help them capture images which reflect their feelings about their relationships. These can be literal pictures, such as an image of a close friend, or abstract pictures with more subtly expressed meanings.
We will meet as a group on a weekly basis, for a total of around 12 sessions. During these sessions, participants will hand in their most recent pictures, share tips, and discuss questions about relationships, such as ‘What makes a rewarding relationship?’ and ‘What barriers prevent youth who’ve been in care from forming rewarding long-term connections?"
Once all the photos have been taken and collected, we will decide as a group which themes we want to emphasize, and from there we will narrow down the images to a collection that will be featured in a public exhibit. Each image will have a related story or caption to accompany it, and the exhibit will function both as a showcase of our work, and as a call to action to those with decision making power. A list of recommendations for change will also be generated from the group discussions.
For one, I don’t want the feelings and experiences of youth from care reduced to statistics; numbers don’t have the power to convey emotions and messages in the way photos do. I also think it’s a terrific way to get young people involved and taking the lead on the project. Traditional research methods are often closed off and discourage participation from those most impacted by the issue being examined.
Why is it important that youth from care are involved?
In much of the academic literature and government policies, relationships are defined on behalf of young people from care, when youth with lived experience don’t necessarily see things the same way. We need to start by hearing the voices of those who have been in the system, so that they can guide the research and policy reform efforts that are being done in their name. Not putting their perspectives at the forefront will always limit how much improvement can be made, because no one knows better than them what it’s like.
The participants will also be given credit for their involvement in the project, and have opportunities to publish and present with me in the future. This is very much co-owned, collaborative research.
What role have close relationships had in your life?
A huge one! One of the reasons I am focusing on relationships is because I wouldn’t be where I am today without my support network. Even though I was in care and aged out, I always had a friend’s place I could go to for the holidays, I was mentored by teachers who encouraged me to further my education, and I had social workers who went above and beyond to ensure that I succeeded.
In doing this project, I want to get a better idea of how rewarding connections like this can be built and developed over time, so that young people from care can benefit in the same way I did.
Are there any practices or policies that you consider particularly detrimental to this type of relationship building?
Yes! I want to do away with the term ‘independent living’, and replace it with ‘interdependent living’. Discourse is framed around making youth from care independent, but this is setting them up for failure. No one expects youth who aren’t in care to be living independently when they’re still so young, so why should it be expected of youth from care?
Like youth without care experience, these young people are still finding their way in the world, and they need a strong network of supports to help them succeed. All the talk of living independently puts a focus on the wrong area and creates the idea that youth from care must be able to get on by themselves to be successful. I want there to be a shift in attitudes, such that relationship building and success within a supportive base are the priorities.
Is there anything else we should know?
I just want to say that I'm super excited to be doing the research I always dreamed of, and I’m also looking forward to meeting with youth and youth organizations over the next few weeks. I feel that I have a social responsibility to my peers in and from care, and I will stand with them as an advocate for change.
If you are interested in participating or want to learn more, please contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org, or give her a call at 438-871-3777.
Please also share the project poster