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Constructing grounded theory focused on youth’s rights in residential care


Aim. The literature about children's perspectives on their rights could be organized in three main areas: attitudes, reasoning and knowledge (Melton 1980; Peens, & Louw 2000; Peterson-Badali & Ruck 2008). However, no literature exists centered on the perspective of children and youth about the fulfilment of rights in their lives, and specifically in residential care.

The residential care implies a separation of young people from their family, home and personal routines, and the state's responsibility by their well-being. For this, the guarantee of their rights seems to be even more critical for social practice and research.

In this study we aim to: 1. identify the underlying dimensions of the children's rights from a content analysis of specific legislative documents; 2. understand how young people in residential care conceive their rights, and what kind of rights they recognize; and 3. identify youth's perceptions about the guarantee of their rights, through a theoretical model grounded on data.

Method. Study 1: a documental analysis of 3 legislative documents (national and international) was completed: 1. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child; 2. The Convention on the Rights of the Child; and 3. The Portuguese Law for Protection of Children and Youth at Risk. These documents were selected considering these criteria: a) the international recognition of the relevance of these two international documents as guidelines on children's rights across cultures; and b) the most relevant legislation document from Portugal concerning children's care and protection. The categories found in this study were included on the focus guide and then explored on the groups.

Study 2: This study included 29 youth, aged from 12 to 18 years old (M=15.17; SD=1.47). The sample is sex balanced (15 males, 14 females), and included mainly white participants (62%). Regarding the reasons underlying the residential care, the majority of these adolescents (58.62%) was exposed, directly or indirectly, to behaviors that seriously affect their safety, and the same percentage of adolescents was neglected. The time of permanency in the institution ranged from 7 months to 7 years, with a mean of 30 months. Six focus groups were carried out in six institutions (2 female, 2 male and 2 mixed) from different geographical regions in Portugal. Data analysis was performed from the grounded theory perspective in order to obtain a theoretical model.

Findings. Study 1: Seven categories - Guarantee of a Whole Development, Privacy, Participation, Normalization, Protection and Security, Non-Discrimination and Parental involvement and responsibility - and 13 subcategories (e.g., Autonomy, Education) were found in this study. The most frequent category was the «Guarantee of a whole development» (55% of the units of analysis), followed by the «Child Participation» (15%).

Study 2: Results regarding the youth's conceptualization about rights involved a definition of rights as the possibility to have or do something (e.g., «Anything we can do without asking» or «I might have something») and the individual merit for have something (e.g., «What we have is freely given, we do not need to ask» or «Have rights because I deserve»). The most reported rights spontaneously were the basic living conditions (e.g., food, housing or health), recreational activities, education, individual freedom and participation, protection and well-treatment, equality and, finally, health. The most important right perceived by youth was education.

Regarding the grounded model, the analysis suggested that youth's perceptions about the non-fulfilment of their rights in residential care seem to contribute for their emotional and behavioral difficulties (the phenomenon identified in the data). Specifically, these difficulties were reported when youth perceives that they are discriminated, their privacy is not respected, their social image is negative or when they perceive that the professionals of the justice system do not respect their family or themselves. The core category which contributes to this phenomenon is «The perceived fulfilment of rights» and comprises eight main categories and twelve subcategories: whole development, parental involvement and responsibility, privacy, social image, participation, normalization, non-discrimination and protection and security. This core category could be analyzed in terms of properties and dimensions, and each category could be represented in a continuum through it dimensions. In this sense, «Having rights fulfilled» involves perceiving a high level of educational support, health care, and autonomy, as well as the presence of recreational activities, basic care, privacy places and the respect of family and themselves by professionals in the justice system, freedom of expression, and protective and security strategies. Finally, this pole core category implies the involvement of youth in decision-making processes, the contact of youth with their family, frequent access to the relevant information and opportunities and activities in a normative life, and a lack of a negative social image, of invasion of personal privacy, and of discriminatory behavior related with residential care condition.

The theoretical model included a set of variables which seems to influence the relationship between rights' perceptions and psychosocial problems, which could be viewed in the model as moderators (e.g., characteristics of institution, perceived social support, processes of social comparison) or mediators (i.e., group identification). Regarding the moderators, we found that when the process of social comparison favors the youth not in care, there is a more negative perception of youth in care associated with the condition of the institution and the perceived rights. In addition, when youth recognize that the care experience provides them with personal and social gains, which otherwise would not be accomplished, there are a more adaptive functioning and a greater satisfaction with the experience in the context of the institution too. The perceived social support seems to be a protective factor, as youth report that they feel better with the support provided by peers and by social workers in the institution. In terms of mediators, and specifically the group identification process, we found that when youth perceive that there is a negative social image associated with youth in residential care and that there is a set of social labels that negatively classify youths as a social group this is reflected in an attempt of youth to hide this condition from the others, and no identification with this social group.

Conclusions. This study reinforces the perspective of adolescents as active actors and their participation as a relevant contribution to grow up grounded theory. These results could be viewed as an interesting starting point for further empirical studies, which might test this theoretical model in terms of statistical analysis. In fact, further evidence is needed to provide important implications for practice with children and youth in residential care.

Key references

Melton, G.B. (1980). Children's rights concepts. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 9(3), 186-190. doi: 10.1080/15374418009532985.

Peens, B. J., Louw D.A. (2000). Children's rights: Reasoning and their level of moral development: An empirical investigation. Medicine & Law, 19 (3), 591-612.

Peterson-Badali, M., Ruck, M. (2008). Studying Children's Perspectives on Self-Determination and Nurturance Rights: Issues and Challenges. Journal of Social Issues, 64(4):749-769.

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