The sexual stories of adults who have lived in out-of-home care as young people : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Social Work at Massey University, Albany, New Zealand

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Young people who are in out-of-home care occupy a space in which what is public and what is intimate intersect. Families, sexuality and reproduction are interconnected and subjected to implicit and explicit government regulation. In contemporary liberal societies, the emphasis on parents caring for their children leads to discourses that call into question the worth of children who are not looked after by their parents. In 17th century Europe, these beliefs were associated with moralism; in contemporary New Zealand, these beliefs are associated with neoliberalism. Sexual stories are “simply the narratives of the intimate life, focussed especially around the erotic, the gendered and the relational” Plummer (1995, p. 6). Utilising a narrative methodology, this research involved a series of interviews with ten adults who had spent time in out-of-home care as young people to explore the sexual stories of those who have been in out-of-home care to consider three research questions: firstly, how the public and the intimate converge at the intersection between sexuality and the provision of out-of-home care, secondly, the intersection between experiences of out-of-home care, sexual and romantic relationships, and lastly the meaning that adults who have been in out-of-home care have made of their lives. The responses to these questions were underpinned by the theory of meaning making, which describes “a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the psychological and the social, between the past and the present, and between emotion and thought” (Kegan, 1982, p. 15). Participants were aware of being positioned as existing outside of dominant social discourses and being perceived as less worthy because they had been in out-of-home care. The stigma associated with being in out-of-home care intersected with sexual stigma that they experienced. Participants actively sought power, agency and inclusion and imagined that if they were to have socially acceptable relationships with socially acceptable partners, they would experience a sense of social inclusion that they had not experienced before. Relationships were made more challenging by the fact that participants had to discover how to have a healthy relationship when they had seen few examples of these in their own lives. Making meaning was more challenging for adult participants who have been in out-of-home care as young people, as not only did they have very complex lives and relationships of which to make meaning, they often lacked relationships with key family members to help them make this meaning. Participants who had made meaning of their experiences in out-of-home care before entering a relationship expressed more satisfaction within their relationships than those who had not made meaning. This research calls into question the neoliberal foundations on which the New Zealand child protection system is predicated but acknowledges that in the immediate future young people will come into out-of-home care. Thus, based on the findings of this research this thesis makes several recommendations to improve that system. The first is a system that promotes better connection between young people in out-of-home care and their caregivers and social workers. The second recommendation is the prioritisation of life-story work with young people in out-of-home care. Both deeper connections and more opportunities for young people in out-of-home care to make meaning of the lives will provide a foundation in which social workers and caregivers are able to engage in meaningful sex and relationship education with the young people that they care for. These changes, as with any development of policy and practice should be informed by the voices of those who are in, or who have been in, out-of-home care.
Listed in 2019 Dean's List of Exceptional Theses
Children, Youth, Institutional care, Sexual behavior, New Zealand, Ex-foster children, Attitudes, Dean's List of Exceptional Theses