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74 MARCH 2005
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Advocating a Child and Youth Care approach in education and practice: Lessons from a study into heroin misuse in Ireland

Niall C. McElwee

I have been particularly exercised these past number of months as a regional study I was co-authoring (with Grainne Monaghan, a triple Child and Youth Care graduate) into heroin misuse in the midlands of Ireland was coming to a conclusion. Our study has become highly controversial in some quarters. Strangely, one of the reasons it has become controversial is because we claim to use a “relational Child and Youth Care” approach. Of course, several people have asked us just what such as approach is. And our answer is simple: it is an approach that is grounded in the lived lives of the family members we wanted to interview – our research partners, not research subjects as our friends in psychology often say. Due to limited space here, I can only isolate a couple of themes for this article to whet the reader’s appetite into this area.

Our study took nine months of intensive field work out in the communities in the midlands of Ireland where heroin has become available and we interviewed just over one hundred persons; 32 heroin misusers and their families, 36 service agency personnel triangulated with 32 questionnaires. We felt that we got the balance right in terms of individuals and agencies and discussed our approach with 250 Child and Youth Care people in three countries – Ireland, Scotland and Canada.

Soon after the book was published last month, the media concentrated on the fact that we refused to give either guessestimates of the number of persons using/misusing heroin or to “pin” down precise figures for heroin misuse in both towns.

Instead, we reported that we were continually told that there were between 80-300 persons using heroin in Athlone and between 70-250 persons using heroin in Portlaoise. Now, we did this because that is what we were consistently told by our interviewees. But we could not substantiate these figures when we triangulated the information with the various service providers who were using up-to-date data banks, nor with the police and court records. What to do?

The interesting thing for Grainne and I is that we felt largely unconcerned with specific numbers in the first instance as we were much more interested in individual narratives of interviewees (indeed this was the focus of our research tender). Here, we found rich information and much that was of benefit in shaping a Child and Youth Care response – one grounded in family – for problem heroin users.

The other thing that really surprised me was the number of agendas that Child and Youth Care and social care agencies held in relation to imparting information and allowing access to (their) service-user populations. We received varying levels of assistance from those who simply could not do enough to help us, to those who could (or would) do nothing to help us.

And, as usual, caught up in the middle of this were the heroin misusers and their families who were desperate to access services, and were prepared, in the main, to take part in a study that would uncover their life experiences. We noted the very real struggles that entire families were undergoing due to one son's, or one daughter’s addiction We noted the cost in economic terms to families where a heroin addiction was spending upwards of €150 daily.

At the launch of our study in January 2005, an ex-heroin addict called Carol informed the delegates that she could not remember four years of her life with her children. All she could think of from the moment she awoke was where her next “fix” would come from.

Thus, when we think now of heroin misuse, I would like people to consider problem heroin taking in a more ecological frame of understanding. I would like Child and Youth Care workers to consider the family in addition to the user/misuser when talking of possible intervention or treatment plans.

This study was a lesson in humility. It certainly challenged me on every level. I would welcome the views of the Child and Youth Care community on our approach and, indeed, the study itself.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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