Who’s who: Ellie Ott talking about fostering and care

The CCoM team come from a range of different disciplines and backgrounds as academics, professionals and activists. Want to find out more about our team members? Read our Who’s Who blog about Dr Ellie Ott, developed in conversation with Sayani Mitra. Ellie is a Senior Advisor at the Centre for Evidence and Implementation, London. She is experienced in leading research to improve the lives of children and families facing adversity across academia, government, and non-profit organisations.

I do not have any linear academic or singular disciplinary background. I have been working on issues related to forced migration, as well as children and families for a long time. During my University days in North America, when I was studying Chemistry, History and French, I got involved in organising various projects focussing on the rights of refugee communities and with refugee communities to meet daily needs. This is when I first started learning about the issues affecting the lives of various resettled communities. My growing interest in this area of work led me into working as a researcher for the US federal government’s, including with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But soon, I wanted to engage more deeply with the problems involved in the lives of the refugee and asylum-seeking communities. So, I came to the UK and pursued a Masters in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies and a Doctorate in Social Intervention, focusing on the lives of refugees.

While I was working and managing research projects in the humanitarian sector with Oxfam, my wife and I also became foster carers. The children we have fostered have included young people designated as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children or UASC. The term unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is problematic, but I still often use it, as it the term that practitioners understand. I have also seen the way that adults and young people use ‘UASC’ to ensure that that their legal rights are met. You gain a different perspective when you are not just studying a topic or partnering with young people to understand their lives in a discrete research project, but you are responsible for their day to day care and they are part of your family, if even for a short time. You might be their primary carer, but, in some cases, they might have strong ties to their family abroad, which they may or may not choose to share with their social worker. It led me to understand the systemic constrains affecting the quality of life and care of these young people. I was already aware of some of the challenges of placements and wellbeing services they face. But it was only through my journey of fostering that I encountered some of the incompatible policies, which often limit educational opportunities of this group of young people.

I spent the last four years at the University of Oxford in the Rees Centre researching fostering services, children’s social care, and educational projects of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Recently, I have joined the Centre for Evidence and Implementation (CEI) which is a non-profit research organisation. CEI gives me an opportunity to partner with policymakers and practitioners to implement research into practice. I believe that there is no one way of making change. It is about figuring out what’s right for you in a particular stage. Having worked at different places and seeing things from different points of view — from government, non-profit, academia, carer – I have been able to develop a more holistic picture of issues.

I have worked and still am working on various projects that directly or indirectly affect the lives of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I am partnering with London Councils to understand the evidence around services for this population. Recently, I led a piece with TORCH at Oxford that worked with educational providers. We captured the experiences of some young people right after their arrival into the UK and their educational aspirations, and did several knowledge exchange activities. I am also working on different research projects more directly related to fostering and children’s social care. I am leading a systematic review of the evidence about lived experience and improving matching in foster care for children and young people and their fostering families.  

As part of this Children Caring on the move project, I am working with the team to unpack some of these ongoing themes of my work. We are studying the nature of various stakeholder’s care involvement in the lives of separated migrant children. It’s been an absolute delight being part of this team. The researchers are extremely thoughtful and bring-in rich insights from their varied professional backgrounds. It feels good to be challenged to think deeply about ideas that inform the policy and practices affecting the lives of the young people.

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