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Early motherhood has been an issue in the U.K. for a while now and data from the Social Exclusion Unit (1999a) explained by Chase et al.(2009) shows that the UK has one of the highest numbers of young mums in Europe.
A group of students including myself carried out a research to find out whether the needs of young mothers in one of the boroughs in London are being met and whether their needs fit into the different approaches surrounding the concept of need.
In this essay I will be describing the rationale and the nature of the research carried out by our group. I will evaluate the strengths and limitations of our research including methodological and ethical issues.
I will be discussing different approaches in literature to defining the concept of need and then relating our findings to the concept. Finally I will consider the implications of our research for social work policy or practice then I will conclude.
The rationale behind the decision to explore this question was that the issue of young parenthood is relevant to the field of social work. This is because the young mums sometimes encounter difficulties which make them fall back on the social services for support. According to Chase et al(2009) the young mothers seem to have the notion that instead of receiving the necessary support that they require, the Social Services rather intrude upon, regulate and scrutinise their lives.
We therefore wanted to find out what the professionals in the field and the young mums identified as their needs, what kind of support was available to them and if there were any gaps in the services provided for young mothers. We also wanted to know what enables or prevents them from getting the kind of support they need.
Furthermore tackling teenage pregnancy has also been on the government’s agenda for a long time and we wanted to know whether the strategies put in place to tackle it were working.
We wanted to broaden our awareness and knowledge base because most of us had limited personal and professional knowledge in this area.
We wanted to explore issues surrounding social exclusion, discrimination and oppression issues and see if we could come up with any recommendations for practice.
We chose the southeastern area because it made it easy to for us to access resources like the service provider, service user group and previous research material.
Our group brainstormed and came up with young mothers as a topic. We developed this into a question as to whether their needs were being met then we worked out a plan with various deadlines to accomplish different tasks.
We asked for ethical approval from the Goldsmiths ethics committee, in which with reference to the ESRC Research Ethics Framework and the NASW code of ethics we stated our independence and impartiality.
We addressed non malevolence by assuring them of their safety and asking them to bring someone along with them if they felt they needed support. We also addressed how we were going to tackle issues regarding voluntary participation, informed consent and the integrity and quality of the research. We also addressed ethical data management and confidentiality of research participants. We also wrote out a consent form which addressed our objectives and consequences of participation.
We chose a qualitative approach explained by Whittaker (2009) as a method which seeks to explore ways in which individuals understand their worlds. This was because we needed a deeper understanding of the issues affecting the young mothers and the reasons behind why and how they felt disadvantaged.
We also used a quantitative approach when comparing previous statistics on young mothers. This is what Whittaker (2009) explains as a method which tends to emphasise quantification and measurement to establish relationship between variables.
Our research was a Participatory action research which Alston and Bowles (1998) explain in Whittaker (2009) as a form of research that is committed to the involvement of those affected most. We also undertook a literature review where we looked at journals, books, official and legal publications which were relevant to young mothers.
To recruit the professionals, we used purposeful sampling which Whittaker (2009) explains as a method where one chooses participants who are likely to yield useful information based on their knowledge, experience or role.
To select our young mums we used snowball sampling which Whittaker (2009) explains as a situation where a small number of participants (which in our case were the professionals) are asked to recommend other suitable people who would be willing to participate.
We used semi structured interviews where we had an interview schedule with flexibility during the interview. The main components of the interview with the professionals were job roles, services offered to young mothers, views about funding due to change in government, needs of young mums, hindrances and gaps in service.
The main components of the interview with the young mothers were access to services, education and employment, community and service user involvement.
In analysing our data we used thematic analysis which Whittaker (2009) explains as a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within a set of data.
In all we interviewed 14 women who became young mothers at ages ranging from 14 to 21 years and 4 professionals.
The strength of our Participatory action research method as Whittaker (2009) explains, shows that the method challenged the traditional power imbalance which would have made us look like experts and the young mothers passive subjects. This method was helpful because it was highly compatible with anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice.
Due to the limited time that we had, this method was the most suitable way of gaining a lot of information in a short period of time as compared to observational methods.
The qualitative approach also allowed us to bring our backgrounds and our identities into our research. This is explained by Maxwell (1996) in Whittaker (2009) through the concept of reflexivity, which acknowledges that we bring our thoughts, values and beliefs to our research. This was helpful because being a mother myself I could identify with what some of the young mothers were saying.
The interviews were helpful because as Whitaker (2009) explains, interviews are good at examining complex issues and enable participants to discuss sensitive issues in the open without committing themselves in writing. This brought out complex and rich data which drew upon the feelings of the teenage mums.
We recorded the interviews and this helped us to give the young mothers our full attention rather than dividing it between writing and listening.
We had some limitations in the form of the transcripts of the interviews which were time consuming and the data very complex to analyse. Due to the number of young mums we interviewed the findings could not be generalised.
The presence of some of the professionals during our interview was a limitation because the young mums could not really express their honest opinions.
Our sample was chosen for us therefore we could only speak to participants thought to be suitable by the service provider. Opinions from the focus group could also be limited to those with the strongest opinions or the loudest voices. Our research also lacked the opinions of young mothers who did not use the service providers we used.
To fit the answers we got from our findings in to the concept of need is complex because one cannot come up with universal definitions that would fit different notions on need.
A number of key theorists have come up with different approaches on the concept of need. Abraham Maslow pointed out in Hartley (2010) a hierarchy of needs with the ultimate goal being the need for self actualisation. According to Maslow the first stage was to satisfy what he called physiological needs which included food, shelter, clothing and sleep.
The next stage was to satisfy safety needs which included security, stability, dependency, protection, freedom from fear, anger and chaos.
Maslow identified the next stage which is to satisfy belonging needs. These include giving and receiving affection and love, contact, intimacy and belongingness. After this stage comes esteem needs which include a stable and high evaluation of self which can be achieved through strength, achievement, mastery, competence, confidence, independence and freedom. Under esteem needs Maslow still put prestige (esteem from others), status, fame, attention, recognition, importance and appreciation.
The final stage on his hierarchy is what Maslow called the self actualisation stage where. Maslow emphasises the essential goodness, wholeness and potentials of humans.
Sheppard (2006) criticises Maslow by pointing out that his theories do not consider that people can consciously take decisions without following the hierarchy.
Midgely (1984) in Sheppard (2006) also criticises Maslow’s theory by saying that the theory hardly covers situations where choice is unavoidable. The pursuit of one goal leads to the abandonment of another. For instance a single mum would love to nurture her baby but has to work and pay bills instead. She fulfils esteem needs which include independence and freedom but forgoes the previous stage of satisfying belonging needs which include giving and receiving affection.
Another approach from Doyal and Gough (1991) also explain that all human beings have needs which are objective and universal. These needs can be said to be goals which humans need to achieve to avoid serious harm. Serious harm is being fundamentally handicapped in the pursuit of one’s vision of the good.
Doyal and Gough (1991) grouped these needs into basic needs and intermediate needs where basic needs are a necessity for successful social participation in a society in which a person lives.
Under basic needs they emphasised physical health and autonomy because physical health is central to the capacity for people to direct their lives and carry out decisions.
Doyal and Gough (1991) explain that autonomy is necessary in order for people to be self directing because one aspect of autonomy is freedom from hindrance or constraints. Therefore one is unable to act under ones own direction if there are constraints. Hence autonomy is not possible when mental health, cognitive skills and opportunities to engage in social participation are missing.
Having explained basic needs, Doyal and Gough (1991) went on to explain that intermediate needs defined how the basic needs can be fulfilled. These included adequate nutritional food and water, adequate protective housing, a safe environment for working, a safe physical environment and appropriate health care. Further included were the need for security in childhood, significant primary relationship with others, physical and economic security, safe birth control and child bearing, appropriate basic and cross cultural education. Therefore to be able to satisfy basic needs one needs a range of satisfiers (intermediate needs) which will be culturally specific.
Robinson and Elkan (1996) explain that the theory underpins theories which emphasise the importance of citizenship and ability to participate within the community.
In the limitations, Doyal and Gough point out in Robinson and Elkan (1996) that the theory does not account for what standard of need satisfaction should be set in order to be able to calculate shortfalls in the actual level of need achieved.
According to them a solution to this, is to set a basic minimum standards such as a poverty line of need, below which people are prevented from participating within the society.
Another limitation which Robinson and Elkan (1996) point out is the problem of who to decide whether or not a given policy is meeting basic or intermediate need.
Another approach from Bradshaw in Hardy (1981) identified four separate definitions. There is normative need which is explained by Hartley (2010) as needs which are determined by expert judgement of policy makers or professionals. The limitation to this approach, as explained by Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) is that there may be different conflicting standards which could contradict how need is identified.
Bradshaw also identified felt need which Hartley (2010) explained as need which is subjectively experienced by an individual or inter subjectively experienced by a group; it is what people feel they want.
Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) point out that there is a danger that peoples’ answers are influenced by what they already know about a service.
Bradshaw went on further to identify expressed need which Hartley (2010) explained as felt need turned into action for instance demanding a service. Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) explains that the theory does not take into account the fact that people may be ignorant or unwilling to ask for a service.
Bradshaw identified comparative need in which people compare what they have to what other people have which is measured by studying the characteristics of those receiving the service or service evaluation.
Hothersall and Maas-Lowit (2010) point out that the theory fails to take account of the variety of ways in which needs might be different, since it makes no attempt to compare different areas.
From the perspectives of the young mothers we interviewed, they identified housing as a need because some of them had been granted temporary accommodation because they were unemployed. Comparatively it was better for them to stay unemployed since wages from unskilled labour was not enough to cover their rent so they are stuck.
Maslow identified housing as a need which needed to be satisfied before other needs can follow. Housing and economic security are also explained by Doyal and Gough (1991) as intermediate needs which have to be fulfilled for basic needs to be met. This is also hindering them from attaining their goals. Doyal and Gough may call this serious harm.
Going by Bradshaw’s concept, the normative judgment of the professionals we interviewed explained that housing was a need but they could only account for housing needs which have been expressed. Many of these young mums lack life skills to be able to express this need to the appropriate agency.
Lack of appropriate childcare was another expressed need according to the young mothers because most of the child minders were not willing to make the hours more flexible. This was preventing them from going back to college or seeking employment.
This according to Doyal and Gough produces serious harm because they are fundamentally disabled in the pursuit of their goals.
There was one service user’s perspective I found intriguing. She got employment which fits into the esteem needs on Maslow’s hierarchy (independence from welfare and freedom from poverty). According to the normative judgment of the professionals because she is working now, she has no need for benefits. She has rent arrears for six weeks, her wages are way below minimum wage and child care hours are not flexible preventing her from working more to fill the gap. She wants to quit because from her perspective she used to earn more on benefits therefore she is better off unemployed. Then again economic security is an intermediate need which Doyal and Gough explain as necessary to be able to satisfy basic needs. Further more she is fundamentally disabled in achieving her goal. This according to Doyal and Gough would produce serious harm.
I do not think that all the recent policies and programmes provide simple and straightforward solutions to all the circumstances which the young mothers face.
In 1999 The National Teenage Pregnancy Strategy was launched in England. The strategy aimed to improve the health of the nation, increase education, employment opportunities and to tackle social exclusion by preventing unwanted pregnancies. It also aimed at assisting and supporting young parents back into education employment or training.
Chase et. al (2009) explains that this goal was to be achieved through a national campaign with clear and improved messages about sex and pregnancy. There was to be greater assistance for young parents through the provision of support services like housing, child care supervision and housing.
Furthermore some of the key elements of Every Child Matters agenda included young people to enjoy make a positive contribution and enjoy economic well being.
The strategy does not seem to be achieving its full potential because most of the young mothers and professionals I interviewed have expressed accommodation, housing and childcare as a need which is preventing them to make a positive contribution and enjoy economic well being.
Therefore policy recommendations will be related to those family friendly policies that are specific to the individual housing and childcare needs of teenagers, in order to enable them to maximise their full potential and parent successfully.
In pointing out issues surrounding stigma, some service users recounted how they are looked down upon and treated unfairly because they are young mums.
As to whether young motherhood should be viewed negatively, depends on the comparison between the life of a young mother prior to childbirth and whether her opportunities in life became limited after that. For some it helped them to settle down and become more focused than was possible owing to their previously chaotic lifestyle.
There is provision in Government strategies like Youth Matters, Young people and maternity services, which addresses sex and relationship education, access to contraceptives and guidance on benefits.
This addresses part of the issue but does not address issues like experiences of abuse and neglect, feeling unloved and rejected and a sense of belonging to a family which make the prospects of being a young mum more inviting.
My recommendations would be for policies that would tackle emotional difficulties of teenagers on an individual basis and encourage acceptance of teenage mums in the community.
With recommendations to practice, Parton 1994a and Walker 2001 point out in Sherpard( 2006) that there has been a shift from an emphasis in response to need to a response to risk. Therefore for social workers to be able to identify need they must be able to recognise it and use their statutory powers creatively.
In my experience with service users I realise that I have overlooked some needs based on assumptions or simply because I did not get the message.
Therefore Walker (2007) urges social workers to listen actively, engage appropriately and understand accurately the view points of service users. We must also overcome personal prejudices to be able to respond appropriately to a range of complex personal and interpersonal situations.
In my opinion if inter agency work is encouraged, there are new opportunities for professionals to listen and learn from the young mothers. This will steer working with the mothers into a direction which is likely to keep them engaged and able to benefit from available services. Social workers can in this way build on their own strengths and develop further the good work currently going on.
At the end of this essay, I have written about at the rationale to explore the needs of young mothers as a topic due to its relevance to Social work. I have also written about what motivated us and our reasons for our choices.
I have also written of our ethical considerations and our methodology. I have explained why the qualitative research method was suitable for our research.
I have evaluated the strengths explaining that the Participatory action method was highly compatible with anti-discriminatory and anti oppressive practice. Furthermore the concept of reflexivity which is a component of qualitative research made it possible for us to locate ourselves in our research.
I have looked at the limitations of our research which included inability to express honest views due to the presence of professionals during the interview and our inability to generalize findings.
I have looked at different approaches from Maslow, Bradshaw, Doyal and Gough in defining the concept of need and their limitations.
I have also looked at the service users need for housing, child care, finance and other needs and related it to the different concepts of need.
I have also written about some recommendations for policy and practice which if properly resourced would emphasize the good work currently going on.
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