Precarious participation: Exploring ethnic minority youth's narratives about out-of-home placement in Norway

Marte Knag Fylkesnes, Julie Taylor, Anette Christine Iversen - Children and Youth Services Review


Children's right to express their views and influence decisions that affect their lives is a strong legal and moral value in social work and beyond. What participation entails and how children's right to participate can be ensured in different contexts is, however, richly debated. In this study, we critically explore the narratives of six youth with ethnic minority backgrounds who had experienced out-of-home placements in Norway. We were interested in how youth narrated their agency (motives and strategies) as well as how structural arrangements enabled and limited their participation, before and during placement. Nancy Fraser's conceptualization of parity in participation and social justice directed our gaze towards the interplay between normative and economic structures in the child welfare service (CWS) context. We identified a pattern along three narrative themes: a) narrating participation, b) narrating ambiguous participation and c) narrating non-participation. The analysis unpacked how informants negotiated both normative and economic structures encountering CWS. Successful negotiation entailed constructing a credible story through striking a balance between maturity and vulnerability and thus performing as “a competent child”. Subsequently, informants who did not succeed in articulating their experiences and wishes in a credible way risked being marginalized as participants. Participation in decision-making during placement was constructed as particularly precarious. Embedded cultural ideas of how “a competent child” should perform could be at odds with informants' identities. Ethnic minority youth might therefore struggle particularly hard to make themselves accountable within the normative structures of CWS. Youth participation also hinged on adults' ability and willingness to listen, and to take into account as well as act upon youths' concerns. However, case trajectories, bureaucratic characterizations and limited resources could hamper both the continuity and quality of such relationships. A key implication is an urgent need for theory and practice models that allow for how social categories such as ethnicity influence youth's participatory opportunities.