Participatory research online exploring care leavers’ experiences of support during the Covid-19 pandemic

PIF 4 March 2021

Dr Niamh O’Brien, Senior Research Fellow, and Anna Dadswell, Research Fellow, presented their participatory research exploring care leavers’ experiences of support during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Covid-19 pandemic has perpetuated the challenges faced by many care leavers. It is important to hear from care leavers about their experiences and include them in decision making so that support better responds to their needs. This participatory research was conducted in collaboration with Essex County Council and funded by the Department for Education as part of a wider project looking at the response of social services in supporting children, young people and families during the pandemic. It involved a research team of 25 care leavers along with their support workers from six Local Authorities: Cornwall, Essex, Hertfordshire, Medway, South Tyneside, and Stockport. The research team met online over eight research sessions to identify priorities, develop an online questionnaire, participate in focus groups, reflect on findings, agree recommendations, and disseminate resources from the research.


Practical challenges: 23% of care leavers were very worried about money before Covid-19, but during the pandemic 46% were very worried. Experiences of support were mixed, and some felt let down by services: “Living on £200 for five weeks is hard when you have rent and bills and food and everything to pay for.”

Mental health: 25% said their mental health was not very good before Covid-19 and this rose to 57%. Some care leavers received support from their Personal Advisor, while others were offered support that did not meet their needs, or did not know where to go for support: “My PA has been very supportive with helping me speak to someone regarding lockdown and my mental health and I couldn’t thank him enough for him going above and beyond.”

Social connection: 59% of care leavers felt connected with friends and family before Covid-19, and this fell to 32%. Some did not have people to connect with, while restrictions made others feel more isolated. Support with access to technology and connecting online was hugely important; though some felt they needed more opportunities to connect: “People from the leaving care group always keep in touch, we were all given help to stay in touch with a computer and internet.”

Support from services: 51% of care leavers said their Personal Advisor supported them practically and emotionally during the pandemic. Involvement and participation teams, along with charities, were also important in supporting care leavers: “Ensuring that YP are being checked up on, all it needs to be is a text. It makes the world of difference to CL’s to know that the LA actually care about them.”

A set of eight recommendations to better support care leavers during and beyond the pandemic were developed, including:

Recommendation six: To proactively reach out to care leavers and make sure they consistently have someone in Leaving Care Services independent to their case/care to talk to about their experiences and the support that they need.

Recommendation seven: To promote participatory approaches in research with care leavers to ensure their priorities and experiences are better reflected in research findings and inform action.

Recommendation eight: To invite those in corporate parent services and central government that are responsible for supporting care leavers to make a promise setting out the action they will take to improve the support for care leavers during the pandemic and beyond.

Conducting participatory research during Covid-19 raised a number of opportunities and challenges:


  • Online research enabled the participation of 25 care leavers across the country, which was valued by the care leavers and could not have happened in the same way face-to-face.
  • The research team were very engaged throughout the project and enjoyed the ease of involvement and flexible approach with no travel and less time commitment.
  • The participatory approach meant that the research was aligned with what the care leavers wanted and thought – they told us that care leavers will want to know what will be done as a result of the research, which led to the action recommendation to ‘make a promise’.


  • Practical challenges associated with research online, such as unstable internet connection, ensuring everyone had the chance to speak, and ‘reading the room’.
  • Ethical considerations around potential distress due to the sensitive subject matter, which was addressed by having Local Authority breakout rooms before and after each research session so that care leavers could check in with their support workers.
  • It was necessary to have a very quick turnaround on the project to inform better support for care leavers during the pandemic, but this meant less time for young people to take the lead, for ideas and analysis to develop, and for discussion between young people which is something they expressed they would like more of in the future.

Author: annadadswell

As a Research Fellow in Social Work and Social Policy at Anglia Ruskin University, I manage the Participatory Research Blog. Please feel free to contact me with questions and suggestions at

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