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GBT Releases Research Report

Journey Towards Independent Living”

What GBT alumni say about leaving GBT and making it in the big wide world!
[Download the full report in PDF format here]

It all started with a question: “How successful are you?”.

This is a question which has become known as, “The Eternal Question” at GBT, because it is asked by all; donors, government officials, other NGOs, staff at GBT and indeed, the youth and their parents making use of our services.

What they all mean in asking this question is, “How successful are you in achieving your mission, i.e. in meeting your commitment to assist youth at risk, to grow and develop into responsible citizens, able to contribute positively to family and community life?”.

When the Research Department was started, Lee our CEO, tasked us with answering this question. In the process of answering this question we believed we would obtain greater clarity on what ‘success’ is for youth leaving care and discover important recommendations for practice that will assist GBT and the broader community of Child and Youth Care.

But for the voluntary guidance and leadership in this task by Prof. Adrian Van Breda from the University of Johannesburg, this onerous research task would have been impossible. However, two short years since the research idea was proposed and only one year since it actually began, we have completed the first phase in answering this question.

The logical place to go to get these answers was to those youth who had been resident at GBT and had left and had some experience in becoming independent ‘responsible citizens’ in their communities. The research report we are announcing the release of here, “Journey Towards Independent Living”, is the stories of nine young men and their journeys since leaving GBT and what these stories reveal.

The nine young men participating in this research mostly described their lives as a “struggle” since leaving GBT, where they battled the negative influences of society, previous habits and emotional wounds and strived to successfully become independent.

It was clear that grandiose ideas of success in independence, that are common to teenagers, had been tempered with their experience of at least four years of being ‘out in the world’. They all described times of being ‘brought low’ in this journey since GBT, where they had been shocked into sobriety and needed to pull themselves up and set new goals. As a result, most of their goals were practical and modest, for example, completing their education, finding a stable job, earning enough money to secure their own accommodation, establishing stable relationships with family and friends, and even, simply surviving the dangers of gangsterism, crime and alcohol/drug use.

So if life is such a “struggle” after GBT, as these young men describe, how successful are they, and indeed, are we at GBT?

Well, it was suggested before this research began that the concept of ‘Success’ for youth leaving GBT care was more complex than selecting key criteria of success and measuring these, as some research has previously done. This research has strongly supported this assertion, by indicating that it is more useful to look at success as a process rather than a static condition that you have, or have not, achieved at any one time.

Not one of these young men would have described themselves as successful yet, even though their stories revealed numerous moments of real achievement and even heroism, to get where they were.

For some, if the interviews had occurred even a few months earlier (and perhaps later) they would certainly have described themselves as ‘unsuccessful’.

For example, where Germaine was caught up in working with a drug lord, or where Brandon had separated from his wife and child and been involved in another serious car accident while drunk (pseudonyms used).

However, from all of these young men’s stories one is given the picture that they are on a path towards improved independence (success) even when the odds are stacked against them. Their journeys after GBT are certainly not a gradual linear movement towards success, or to becoming unsuccessful, but rather journeys that have regular ‘ups and downs’, much like a graph of the performance of the stock exchange.

Adding further complexity to the concept of success is that while it can easily be argued that the ‘ups’ should be regarded as times of success and ‘downs’, as times of a lack of success, it is clear that many of the ‘downs’ are significantly important in creating the later ‘ups’, and visa versa.

Furthermore, the research has also highlighted the individual specificity of success, i.e. where for one, success may be to get a steady job and for another, it may be to avoid the lure of a job working for a drug lord. So in understanding ‘success’ one needs to look more carefully into the journeys of these youth rather than quickly coming up with definitions that fit a particular bias.

This research has therefore avoided defining success upfront, but rather to discover from those GBT alumni what this is for them and what processes are involved in this journey. There has been a lot of research into the area of “Youth Leaving Care” in recent times, but few studies have endeavoured to identify the social processes that youths navigate when leaving care and as they establish themselves as independent adults. And few have endeavoured to formulate theory to describe and perhaps even explain or predict patterns of care-leaving. This study has ambitiously endeavoured to do just that.

Through a Grounded Theory analysis, central patterns of social processes emerge which are applicable across all nine participants. From this we constructed a theory of the process of care-leaving.

The central/primary process was “the need for authentic belonging”.

This is a need for a genuine experience of being loved and of fitting into a social system such as a family, and dictates how the other  social processes are used. 

Youths demonstrate this need in various ways – some more effective, others less so and some heavily defended – they strive towards authentic belonging, which is the underlying definition of success for most. To help them in this striving, which can be thought of as a process of successing, they draw on a range of social skills, many taught by GBT and others learned through experience and from other youths in care, to network people in their social environments.

This networking people is to garner help and partner with them in attaining their goals, particularly their goal of experiencing authenticity in human relationship. Optimally “networking people for goal attainment” (second social process) requires care-leavers to rapidly and accurately assess their social environment for opportunities (which can be utilised) and threats (which need to be avoided or circumvented). This requires astute observation of their environments, insight and learning from their observations and then acting upon this learning, to transform opportunities into assets and to neutralise threats (third social process, “Contexualised observation, learning and action”).

Because their social environments are frequently complex and suboptimal, care leavers require a great deal of resilience, particularly an unshakable “hope and tenacious self-confidence” (fourth social process), to believe that they can effect change in their environments and that they really can carve out a better future for themselves.

When, however, care-leavers believe that their lives are somehow a sham, when they are co-opted into seeking and accepting superficial notions of success, some youth ‘mess-up’ or “scupper” (fifth social process) their apparent success in order to tap into the deeper authentic belonging that they long for. While these responses appear unproductive and may be interpreted as evidence of programme failure and being unsuccessful, they are in many cases, an important part of the journey towards authentic belonging.

This theory has revealed important implications for practice at GBT and potentially the broader field, which are discussed thoroughly in the report, but briefly listed below;

  • Greater attention is needed to be given to youths need for authentic belonging.
  • Enhanced Aftercare services.
  • Greater attention is needed in developing the internalisation and generalization of skills learned at GBT.
  • Opportunities that arise in youths lives while at GBT, need to be used to develop their observation, learning and action skills.
  • Developing a good understanding in staff of the process of ‘messing-up’ or scuppering by youth.
  • Implementation of the existing programmes: Theoretical concepts that are well documented in the programmes used by GBT were emphasized as needing greater focus. Most especially was that of leadership, trust and responsibility as covered by the Self Government and Peer Group Systems.

The way forward: Although the full report, as made accessible on the link, has plenty of detail describing this theory and what is revealed by the youths’ stories, in the near future, there will be papers published specifically addressing some of the social processes described in this theory.

Also, our research has strongly supported the need to follow-up this study with further research into the area of youth leaving care. The GBT research department will be conducting the second phase of this research through a Longitudinal study, where these journeys of our youth are followed from the time they leave GBT.

Watch this space for further developments!

“When care-leavers believe that their lives are somehow a sham, when they are co-opted into seeking and accepting superficial notions of success, some youth ‘mess-up’ or “scupper” (fifth social process) their apparent success in order to tap into the deeper authentic belonging that they long for.”



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