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Appendix One: Challenges associated with maintaining the sample and the practicalities of data collection

This is an exceptionally hard to reach population: the study is dependent to a large extent on the active participation of birth parents and other primary carers. Informed consent from birth parents was necessary before any child could be recruited to the sample and each year following this. The birth parents were recruited to the study at around the time of the pregnancy and birth of the index child. During this time the birth parents were not only dealing with the usual emotional stress of pregnancy and child birth, but were also experiencing substantial difficulties including: intimate partner violence, problem alcohol and drug use, mental illness, experiences of abuse in childhood, experiences of the permanent removal of older children, housing problems including homelessness, financial problems including bankruptcy, and learning disabilities. The difficulties the parents were facing as well as the high level of intrusion into their lives from child protection services undoubtedly limited the likelihood that they would participate in the study and further limited their commitment to it over a prolonged period.

Children fit the sampling criteria if they had come to the attention of children’s social care for concerns in relation to abuse and neglect before their first birthday in one of the ten participating local authorities during 2006. Birth parents of the children who fit these criteria were invited to participate. Statistical tests however have since confirmed that the sample is skewed towards children who were at higher risk of harm.19 These children are therefore some of the most vulnerable in our society, they include; infants who were not fed for so long that they ceased crying; a three year old who could explain how to prepare heroin; a toddler who was allowed to taste speed; and a child who self-harmed.

Our sample comprises the children, our data shows, who keep the professionals who work with them awake at night out of fear that they might be the next Peter Connelly or Victoria Climbié. Consequently, however, extensive efforts are required to conduct research with this cohort.

The following sections explore the parents’ and carers’ incentives to participate; the importance of the relationship between the researcher and participant; the practicalities of data collection; and the approach necessary for data collection.

Incentive to participate

Over the years, we have been keen to understand from the perspectives of parents and carers what their incentives were for taking part over such a prolonged period. Following

19 Our qualitative data indicates that the parents who responded to the study felt disempowered by the level of intrusion into their lives from children’s social care, participating in this study was a way for them to get their stories heard. Some had very negative stories and some were very positive.

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each interview, parents and carers were given a £20 gift voucher for a supermarket of their choice, however their reasons for taking part spanned more widely than this. When asked, the most common reasons given by the parents and carers were; to help others;

to have their voice heard/ to be listened to; to feel empowered; or to effect changes in services.

It was therefore important we considered how these incentives might be achieved in our approach and design of methodologies. For instance, asking the parents and carers to complete a set of standardised scales and/or structured questionnaires and nothing else would not have allowed them the opportunity to sufficiently express their views and tell their stories. It was important that we took the time to listen to each participant and to be interested in what they had to say, even if what they were telling us was not entirely the answers to the questions we wanted to ask.

We tried to ensure that taking part was not a negative experience. We wanted the parents and carers to feel that it had been worthwhile, and that the information they provided to us was valued. Above all we wanted to participants to feel empowered through the process, and, of course, wanted them to invite us back the following year.

Relationships

The relationship that the researcher was able to form with each participant was extremely important to the data collection process. The following were important factors:

• Continuity: the research team remained the same throughout the study. The researchers knew each family personally.

• Trust: it was important that the participants felt that they could trust the researcher, that they would not be judged or criticised, and that their views were being listened to and respected.

• Independence: the research team were not part of the decision-making processes, such as care proceedings or statutory child protection services. Therefore the parents and carers could express themselves freely and away from the scrutiny of statutory services.

Practicalities

To conduct a study of this nature face to face interviews were necessary. The most appropriate place for the interviews to take place were the homes of the children.

However in many of the their homes, the noise of cartoon or music channels on the television was the back drop to daily life. It may seem that asking a participant to turn the television off, or down, might be straightforward, but making such a request could inhibit their ability to feel comfortable during the interview. This needs to be balanced with the

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necessity for the researcher to concentrate on asking the most appropriate questions and, ideally, get a reasonable quality data.

Many of the children’s homes were very overcrowded, and most were living with siblings including babies and toddlers. It was an ongoing challenge to find a calm, private space in which to conduct an interview. For instance, the majority of interviews with parents took place with a younger child present as well as in some of the least peaceful areas of the home, such as in the kitchen whilst the parents are cooking, cleaning, washing etc.

On one occasion the researcher was sat on the kitchen floor on a pile of laundry because it was the only private space available.

It was important that the researchers balance the need for robust data with the practicalities of collecting it. This was a continuous compromise.

Approach

Throughout this study flexibility and persistence was key to maintaining the sample.

Although face to face interviews were necessary for a study of this nature, they brought with them a number of practical difficulties. Firstly, many of the participants led transient and chaotic lifestyles and tended not to keep to appointments. If they had a mobile phone, it was almost always without credit, or lost. Social network sites only proved successful in contacting a very small number of parents. Parents usually did not answer the phone to a number they did not recognise and were unable to listen to voicemail or respond to a text because they did not have credit to do so. On average, in this study, it took three visits to a birth parent’s home before a successful interview could be achieved.

The most effective way of achieving a successful interview with the birth parents was to make ourselves available in an area for a few days at a time and to call round to their home several times until they were available.

Each of the parents and carers also required a very individual approach. We have established a close research relationship over the years, and developed an

understanding of the best ways of working with each of them. For instance, one mother preferred only to be contacted by letters written on lilac paper. It could be several weeks and months before we would get a response from our letters, and several missed

appointments before we achieved a successful interview with her. Another mother preferred not to be interviewed at her home, choosing instead to be interviewed in a supermarket car park during her break from work. She did not know when her break would be and could not access her phone during her shift, therefore we would to wait around for most of the day until she contacted us to say that she was on her break and available for the interview.

Each parent and carer required a different approach. It was therefore important that the researchers did not adopt a static approach whereby the same script or set of

instructions was adhered to for each interview.

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Appendix Two: Interviewing the study children and the