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Life Course Research

Director of Research – Dr Gavin Davidson

The Life Course research cluster began life as a research group in 2008, bringing together researchers from a number of disciplines within the School with a common interest in the translation of childhood experiences into adult lives; as Wordsworth put it: ‘So was it when life began; so is it now I am a man.’ As a consequence we provide a bridge between researchers whose primary interest is in the lives of children and those whose interest is in the lives of adults; challenging traditional academic and service provision boundaries in a stimulating project designed to promote a ‘life-course’ perspective on personal problems and social issues in order to build an evidence base to both inform early (child) and later (adult) social policies and professional practices.

Whilst our starting point is the interconnectivity of experience across the life course, our particular focus of interest has been to examine the associations between Multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (MACE) and poor individual economic, social and physical/mental health outcomes in later adult life. Our initial research was concerned with identifying MACE within the population of children whose names were on the Child Protection Register (Devaney, 2009); examining particular associations with the experience of domestic violence (Devaney, 2008) and drawing out implications for both interdisciplinary working (Devaney, 2008) and policy making (Devaney and Spratt, 2009). Our next step was to more broadly chart the economic and political antecedents to developments in social policy and draw out the implications for professional intervention (Spratt, 2009); examining the extent to which professionals and service managers in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States recognise those families whose children experience multiple adversities (Spratt and Devaney, 2009). In a further series of papers we mapped the research literature linking experience of childhood adversity to problematic outcomes in adulthood (Davidson et al, 2010), identified the ethical challenges involved in building a case for mandated early intervention where families may give cause for concern but do not reach child protection tariffs (Houston et al, 2010), and examined the case for co-joining services in consideration of the interrelated needs of service users across the life course (Spratt, 2010). More recently we have argued that the predictive power of the experience of multiple problems in childhood is key to understanding current developments in social policy in the United Kingdom and provides a basis for redirecting research efforts towards establishing associations between such multiple experiences and later outcomes (Spratt, 2011). We have now begun testing such associations empirically with phenomena as diverse as MACE and use of social services, via a survey of first year university students (McGavock and Spratt, 2012), and MACE and youth suicide (Devaney et al, 2012). We have recently commenced the ‘Life Pathways Study’, designed to explore possible associations between MACE and those individuals currently experiencing challenging circumstances in adult life, with particular focus on the narratives of subjects and siblings. The next phase of our research involves the testing of the salience of actuarial tools at population levels in order to identify those families most likely to require early intervention because of multiple and complex needs. We have further plans to research the prevalence of MACE across adult populations in a number of European cities, testing possible associations with a range of adult issues.

In addition to publications we have further reported our empirical research and theory development work at national and international seminars and conferences. The success or otherwise of our research cluster is entirely dependent on our members. Because our cluster represents academics working across both child and adult areas and across different academic fields, we collectively offer a range of skills and abilities to inform a project which would not be within the scope of any of us as individuals. Theoretically our members have challenged those working within sometimes narrowly conceived disciplinary fields to reconceptualise their  understanding of the range of harms to children, how these may work together, with their effects often not being fully realised until much later in the life course, disguising the true antecedents to poor adult health and social outcomes.

A number of our members have worked with colleagues in Europe in recent years and are in the process of developing a new European Centre for Child Protection Education and Research based at QUB. It is envisaged that the imprimatur of this Centre would be a focus on the life course, offering a new conceptual understanding of child protection, inclusive of a range of professional disciplines working together to invigorate our thinking as to the range of ways both child and adult circumstances might be better understood, to better inform the work of policy makers and professionals.