By Peter Williams, on 13 April 2021
Miriam Antcliffe, Research in Practice Research and Development Officer, speaks to John-george and Darren who share their personal stories of accessing their care files as adults.
By Peter Williams, on 22 February 2021
As mentioned in a previous blog post (at that time as a forthcoming event) UCL hosted a virtual seminar as part of an ‘Up Close & Policy’ series: Care leavers’ rights to records – a central theme of the MIRRA project – in October. Dr Elizabeth Lomas (Department of Information Studies, UCL), Darren Coyne (The Care Leavers’ Association), Luke Geoghegan (British Association of Social Workers) and Matthew Brazier (Ofsted), discussed how their work with care leavers (i.e. any adult who spent time in care, such as foster care, residential care, or other arrangements outside the immediate or extended family, as a child) and their rights to their personal records has led to change in policy in the area of children’s social care policy.
The report to this seminar is now available, which brings together the key points made during the discussion by each of the speakers, as well as the audience Q&A:
By Peter Williams, on 7 January 2021
A happy and (especially, considering last year!) healthy New Year from the MIRRA+ team! Just to say, in this update that, along with our OLM partners, we ran two workshops just before Christmas in which we discussed the participatory record-keeping principles developed in Phase One of the research. These were to tease out the implications for the design specification for a new participatory system. The principles were initially cut down by the research team to the 20 most likely to be of relevance in creating the specification for such a system, and participants were asked to choose individually and then discuss what they considered to be the four most important in this context. The first workshop was with our ‘co-researcher’ group of care-experienced people (the ‘receivers’ of care records) and the other with the information providers or ‘deliverers’.
Both workshops showed how passionate everyone was to promote positive change. For the Care Experienced individuals, redaction was one important issuer. They felt that their files were over redacted, leading to serious gaps in their journey in care. Feelings of distress were reported, and some felt they were being misled. Participants also said the preservation of memories should include material items – the smell of letters and hand-written notes in old books were said to bring back more memories than digital copies.
For the Deliverers, much of the focus was on the quality and preparation of content. In terms of the latter, concerns were expressed about gaps in the care experienced person’s life, the language used and the lack of creative record keeping such as photographs, awards, and letters. They felt participatory record keeping would help in allowing the young people and important individuals in their lives to contribute and build a story. However, this would need to be delivered in an age appropriate and sensitive way.
From both of the workshops, four main principles were agreed as potentially having the most positive impact:
- Inclusion of sentimental items
- Minimising redaction
- Participatory record keeping
- Creative record keeping
OLM Systems will now conduct further internal workshops to analyse the results, brainstorm solutions, and create interactive designs. Watch this space!
By Elizabeth J Lomas, on 7 November 2020
Across many countries, religious houses have been part of the patchwork of national childcare provision. The reality of this care is that it has been both positive and negative and religious organisations should own to the strengths and failures of the systems they have built. This includes taking responsibility across Ireland for the Magdalen Laundries. In both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, right up until the 1990s, the Magdalen Laundries took in expectant mothers (so called ‘fallen women’) with the outward goal of caring for these women and the children born to them. However, the reality of the experiences of many of these women and the babies born to them has cast a shadow on the care provision across the island of Ireland. The conditions for many women within the Laundries was little short of slavery. Furthermore, tragically many mothers and children died. In regard to the surviving children, they were often taken away through forced adoptions and sent overseas, with records being withheld to limit any chance of the child and their mother reuniting. Recently, it has further emerged that the children were exploited, for example for through their use in vaccine trials. Separately in Ireland, a Mother and Babies home Inquiry was launched to investigate specific abuses. However, whilst this has acknowledged failings, nevertheless this Inquiry itself has been mired in controversy. Initially the Department of Children, announced that its entire copy of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission archive would be archived and sealed from access for 30 years. Last week, under pressure, this decision was reversed. We have yet to fully understand what will be released and what may be withheld and/or redacted.
In Ireland and across the world, systematic failings have called into doubt many lauded institutions. Despite the institutions knowledge of their own failings, there has still not been full disclosure and accountability for past practices. This raises the questions, why do current administrations seek to cover the horrors of the past? This only further damages the reputation of Government and institutions and their relationship with citizens today. In addition, why does it need an Inquiry to force changes the need for which is often recognised long before the full findings of an inquiry are released? As part of this restoration of justice, we know that around the globe, care leavers are still denied access to the full set of records that can help them make sense of their childhoods. This is in spite of the case law decisions that have highlighted their rights to access these records. Whilst not all crimes of the past can be remedied, some very simple steps to provide accountability and information access can assist in restoring trust today and providing care leavers and current children in care with the rightful information that helps them make sense of their pasts.
In Ireland, the case for change is being made from the grassroots up. In addition, last week the Republic of Ireland wound up a consultation on the new strategy for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth aiming to better resource and mange critical agendas. The MIRRA Research Group submitted a response arguing for accountability and better recordkeeping for children in care. The submission relates to the need to properly recognise the recordkeeping responsibilities regarding children in care and the need to support access to their records throughout their lives. MIRRA has found that records are the only means for many care leavers to make sense of their childhoods, given the disconnect with family. The provision of well-crafted records can be life-changing to a person’s long-term wellbeing into adulthood. In addition, when there are investigations, such as the Magdalen Inquiry, these are often hampered, contested and called into doubt when recordkeeping systems are poor. The need for records in the Magdalen Laundries investigation, which has shown that the omission of records and poor management has had serious consequences, has impacted citizen trust in childcare processes. Holistic systems with some independence are key. The MIRRA submission can be read at https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/mirra/files/2020/11/MIRRA_DCYAStrategyStatement_6Nov2020.pdf.
In the UK we are still awaiting the findings of the IICSA inquiry. MIRRA also provided a policy briefing to IICSA which can be read at https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/mirra/files/2020/11/IICSABriefingPaper_MIRRA_UCL_August2019-1.pdf. We hope that the report from IICSA will acknowledge the failures of the past and make strong recommendations to address and remedy these failings into the future. Part of this adenda needs to include a recordkeeping provision.
We are all on a journey. However, we know many of the solutions that are needed to provide for better lives and outcomes for the children in care today. Let us hope that the authorities of today, own to the failings of their predecessors, and improve the outcomes of children in the future. Recordkeeping is a key part of this agenda. Records made with children, centering their voices, can help build better trusted systems that enable organisations to be accountable to future generations.
Let us hope these inquiries do make concrete changes for the future.
By Elizabeth J Lomas, on 22 October 2020
… we are pleased to announce that the MIRRA project has obtained further funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. In our first project we focused on understanding the information needs of care experienced individuals, and this enabled us to build a set of recommendations around the creation, management and ongoing accessibility of children’s social care records. This had the aim of better supporting the care experienced to enrich their memories and their sense of identity’. Some work from this first phase is still ongoing. However, with this new funding we are now developing a set of specifications that can underpin a new record-keeping system for use in child social care that takes our recommendations into account and which centres the needs of the person in care. Crucially, it will be designed to provide better opportunities for care experienced individuals to contribute to their files. We are delighted to be working with the commercial company OLM Systems on this. OLM are expert software developers who work with public services and the wider care sector. This next phase of the work will be known as MIRRA+. The result of the research will be an open-source specification for a participatory digital social care recording system.
As previously, we will also be working with care-leavers (as co-researchers), social care workers and information professionals who will be using the system. We wish to capture their views on what the system should look like, how it should function, and what features would work for them.
I keep saying ‘we’ of course, but in fact I should introduce myself. I am Peter Williams, the new Research Associate working full time on the project. I have worked as a researcher at UCL on various projects since 2004 but am delighted to have this opportunity. In addition, I will be working with Anna Sexton. Anna worked on the initial pilot project that was the forerunner to MIRRA. In my case, at the time of the first MIRRA I was working on a British Academy-funded study looking at the role and impact of mobile devices on the lives of people with learning disabilities – the last of a long line of projects working with this group. However, I kept up to speed on MIRRA, partly because it was similar to my own work ‘participatory’ also in that those involved were not mere research ‘subjects’, but ‘participants’ (if not ‘co-researchers’) and partly because I shared an office with the amazing Victoria Hoyle who worked on MIRRA full time. It will be very hard to match her expertise, although I hope I have the same enthusiasm, and will certainly try my best! Elizabeth Shepherd and Elizabeth Lomas continue to work on MIRRA too.
Meanwhile, watch this space for more news on our progress!
Up Close and Policy! Care leavers’ access to childhood records: the British Association of Social Workers, Ofsted, the Care Leavers Association and MIRRA project team
By Elizabeth J Lomas, on 12 October 2020
As you know, MIRRA is trying to make change surrounding social care recordkeeping processes including access and ownership of those records by care leavers. In addition we have been looking at the wider information networks that help care leavers make sense of their lives. This is a journey, which many of our MIRRA research participants have been working on for a very long time. A critical intention of MIRRA from the outset, was to provide an evidence base to help facilitate critical policy changes for the care leaver community. Clearly this work has had a much greater impact because of the role of care leavers as co-researchers at the heart of the project advocating for their needs. We have been grateful for the support of the Care Leavers Association. In addition, from the outset we were able to get key stakeholders involved as advisors.
On Wednesday 14th October, we will be discussing the MIRRA policy journey with some critical players – Darren Coyne (Care Leavers Association), Luke Geoghegan (British Association of Social Workers) and Matthew Brazier (Ofsted). Social workers have been keen to reconsider aspects of their recording processes and the importance of the child’s voice in recordkeeping. In August BASW, drawing on MIRRA guidance, published top tips for recording practices (https://www.basw.co.uk/resources/recording-children%E2%80%99s-social-work-guide ). In addition, Ofsted have taken very seriously the impact inspections can have on recordkeeping processes. This was a great blog post from Ofsted on records https://socialcareinspection.blog.gov.uk/2019/07/24/what-makes-an-effective-case-record/ . MIRRA has reached out and tried to make a difference to on the ground practice, both through the traditional networks of Whitehall but in addition through other critical players from professionals through to charities and local authorities.
We hope that some of you might want to come and join this discussion on policy making within the context of MIRRA. It is on Zoom at 1-2pm Wednesday 14th October. Please sign up at https://upcloseandpolicycareleavers.eventbrite.co.uk.
By Elizabeth J Lomas, on 4 October 2019
We have been trying to further spread the word about our recordkeeping recommendations for local authorities, information and data professionals, and social workers, which are that:
- Records should be co-created by all those involved in a child’s care. They should include the voices of children themselves, taking into account their life-long needs for memory, identity and justice.
- Best practice guidance for records creation and management should be establishedfor all organisations with safeguarding responsibilities and guardianship of children’s memories.
- New standards for access to records for all care-experienced persons should be developed. New standards should address the rights of care-experienced people and the responsibilities of institutions.
UCL has issued a press release at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2019/oct/childrens-voices-omitted-care-records-ucl-study-finds . We are delighted that this press release has already been picked up by The Conversation who have published a piece at: http://theconversation.com/care-leavers-trying-to-access-childhood-records-is-distressing-and-dehumanising-124381. The piece draws out the distressing and dehumanising nature of some recordkeeping practices across the social care system. In addition, it highlights the value of good recordkeeping. We are pleased to report that Community Care produced a piece highlighting the recommendations: https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2019/10/03/childrens-voices-largely-absent-care-records-causing-significant-distress-study-finds/ . Finally Elizabeth Shepherd was interviewed and discusses the project at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p07md69m (please note she is featured 2.22.50 in).
All of these pieces are made particularly powerful by those participants who were quoted speaking of experiences accessing their records and the highs and often lows of seeing what had been captured. It is their testimonies that highlight the significance of recordkeeping, whereby childhood memories should be captured and made available as a basic right that underpins lifelong wellbeing.
We hope that others will continue to engage with this important debate.
By Victoria Hoyle, on 23 September 2019
Research often feels like something that happens behind closed doors. Over the two years that I’ve worked on the MIRRA project I have spent many hours alone in my office (or at my dining table!), just me, a computer screen and the clack of my keyboard. This is undoubtedly where a lot of the work of thinking, analysing, understanding and writing has been done; but it isn’t where the meaning or satisfaction in my job has come from. That has come, without fail, from the amazing people that I have worked alongside and from the change we’ve started to make together. When I was doing my PhD I often quizzed myself about my decision to go into research, and worried that becoming an ‘academic’ would take me away from the real world and the real life concerns of people. I’m inexpressibly grateful that my first full-time job as an academic researcher proved those fears were wrong, in so many ways. Research is what we make it, and with MIRRA we have all had an opportunity to make something powerful and heartfelt.
That’s an emotional way to begin this post, but it seems fitting since MIRRA has been an emotional project: it’s about memory, identity and our need to understand ourselves, which are all very emotional things. I’ve often felt full of feelings while working on it. I am full of feelings now as the project, at least this phase of it, comes to a close. The current funding for MIRRA finishes in mid-October 2019, which means that my role as Research Associate is almost over. I will be leaving UCL at the end of this week (28th September), to take up a new job at the University of York. This is incredibly sad for me, because I will miss working with everyone in the research team so much; but it is also very exciting, as the new project I will be working on also promises to make a difference to people’s lives.
I am grateful and humbled that I have had the opportunity to work with my care-experienced colleagues on MIRRA. Prior to starting on the project I had very little knowledge or understanding of child social care, and no personal experiences. I was an outsider, but people welcomed me in. I would like to particularly thank the core and extended research group – Darren, Andi, Gina, Linda, Isa, Rosie, John-george, Jackie, Emmanuel, Brett and Sam – but also all of those who shared their life stories or experiences and placed their trust in me, in person, by email or on Twitter. Practitioners and other researchers have also been very generous, both with their time and their thoughts. It’s safe to say that while I have learnt a lot about care and care experiences over the last two years, I have learnt even more about how to be a good researcher and a good human.
MIRRA doesn’t end here though! The other members of the research group at UCL, Elizabeth Shepherd, Elizabeth Lomas and Andrew Flinn, will be picking up the reins and carrying the work forward. They will be continuing to work with legislators and regulators on improving recordkeeping and access to records, and creating and sharing guidance for care leavers and practitioners. Twitter and the website will still be updated. They will be joined by a new colleague, Anna Sexton, who will be leading on follow-on funding applications to extend and expand the work. Anna isn’t completely new to the project, as she worked on the original pilot study back in the summer of 2017.
We are currently waiting to hear about another year’s worth of money from our current funder, the AHRC, which would allow UCL to start developing a recordkeeping system for social workers that focuses on memory and identity rather than risk and performance management. If that bid is successful the project will start early in 2020. The team is also beginning to discuss the next large scale bid, which will widen the research to other services and agencies who have similar record-keeping issues including mental health provision, criminal and youth justice, immigration and adult social care. The aim is to keep records high up on people’s radar, and to emphasise the role they play in shaping our lives as both individuals and as citizens.
You can contact the team with your thoughts and queries:
Elizabeth Shepherd – email@example.com
Elizabeth Lomas – firstname.lastname@example.org
Anna Sexton – email@example.com
Andrew Flinn – firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to stay in touch with me and my future work, you can find me on Twitter as @Vicky_Hoyle, or contact me via email at email@example.com.
Take care everyone, and thank you again.
By Victoria Hoyle, on 19 September 2019
This post has been kindly contributed by Michelle Conway (IMS Team Manager (Records)) and Imogen Watts (Corporate and Digital Records Manager) from Gloucestershire County Council.
Recently, at the MIRRA Symposium, we were reminded that organisations have a lifelong responsibility as the corporate “parents” of care-experienced individuals to safeguard their records and make this information available to them. While we, as information professionals, would wholeheartedly agree to these principles, the reality is that record-keeping and record-sharing practices historically have not always matched.
Our organisation, like many others, has not done things perfectly. However, over the last four years, we have been running a project to improve the accessibility of our historical childcare files and the information within them.
The Historical Children’s Records Project (HCRP) began in March 2016 with the aims to:
- Identify historical childcare files held across the council’s estate and transfer them to the central Records Centre where they would be indexed in our records database and placed into secure storage;
- Improve the indexing of historical childcare files already stored in the Records Centre. No small task, considering there were over 80,000 of these in storage!
How was this born, you ask? Well, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s (IICSA) requirement that organisations make children’s records accessible for inquiries (plus the subsequent moratorium on the destruction of children’s records) prompted us to take a long hard look at how records were being managed and to acknowledge that “J Smith” as a file title was an inadequate identifier. An external audit of the availability of the council’s safeguarding records also highlighted issues of identifying what and where records were being kept and the impact of this on responding adequately to subject access requests. The council judged that the risks were high enough to warrant funding for a project team and we have been able to secure funding on this basis year on year.
Initially, the project felt like a Pandora’s Box: visiting 55 council properties has demonstrated the weird and weirder places that uncatalogued records have been stored (including in the kitchen sink and roof rafters), with over 12,000 files transferred to the Records Centre in the project’s first year. Conducting records surveys as part of office moves and decommissioning of premises is now becoming part of business as usual, as we’ve recognised that if we aren’t proactive, records will literally become hidden.
The indexing process has been equally eye-opening. Taking a risk-based approach, we decided to prioritise administrative and case files from residential children’s homes. Records are indexed in our Records Centre database, RAFTS, and as we reviewed the file entries, we found that whilst files had basic metadata attached to them, this metadata was incomplete and didn’t accurately identify all the individuals whose information was contained in the files. For example, a case file for J(ane) Smith would primarily contain information about her but it would also hold key data relating to her parents – e.g. Peter Smith -; siblings; and caseworkers. We added key metadata (names; DoBs; relationships) to the database entries to ensure that if someone searched for information on Peter Smith, Jane’s file would come up in the search results, as well as any files where Peter was the main subject.
This work has positively supported the work of our Information Requests team, as it provides them with a greater certainty that when they search RAFTS, they are signposted to the information they need. This helps ensure care leavers are given all the information they are entitled to.
Through the work to improve the historical file index entries, the project team has amassed a wealth of knowledge on social care files through the years and the issues that have been rife in historical information recording practices – which vary dramatically over time. We’ve decided to use as much of this knowledge as possible to inform and improve current and future practice.
Since November 2018, representatives from our Records Management and Information Governance teams have been embarking on a programme to deliver information management training to staff across Children’s Services – from admin staff to practitioners to managers and service leads. Part of this training covers appropriate storage of files, what technically counts as a record, and (for practitioners) what information should be recorded – including how, where and when. The HCRP project team’s knowledge on historical issues in information recording has been invaluable to help identify potential gaps and to ensure we cover these.
This probably all sounds a bit dry, as information management is usually perceived to be… So we’ve done our best to try to make the training as much fun as possible. We get everyone involved and actively participating in tailored activities, including a game where you win a chocolate (of the mini variety) if you correctly match the document type to the appropriate storage location, a “what would you do?” exercise around a (fictitious) email being sent to the wrong (fictitious) person, and a handful of cartoon characters as case studies – for example, we’ve had Paddington Bear asking for his files (he was in foster care with the Brown family after all), and it turns out we found some (fictitious) files in a (fictitious) basement instead of the Funnybones skeletons (remember them?).
The feedback we’ve received from this training has been overwhelmingly positive, which is great to hear and shows that our aim of making it both fun and informative is working. Our main concern remains making sure we have an impact on the way things are done. We have seen some changes already, particularly around secure handling of information, so we seem to be on the right track. It does look like it might be quite a long road, especially since the goalposts shift slightly when new information comes to light, for example we’d now like to tie in the recommendations from the MIRRA project and help the council adopt that child-centred way of recording information. It may take some time to get these changes planned, approved, understood and embedded, as significant changes tend to, but as long as we’re moving forward, we’ll still be making progress and improving things as much as we can. Sometimes small steps are all that you can take, but as long as we keep our eyes fixed on the end goal we’ll get there in the end!
More information about Gloucestershire’s Historical Children’s Records Project is included in our downloadable best practice case study leaflet. Later this year MIRRA will release a set of Principles for Caring Recordkeeping and a toolkit to support organisations to meet them.
By Victoria Hoyle, on 5 September 2019
I’ve spent the last few weeks working on research articles and other writing projects. As MIRRA nears the end of this research phase 90% of my to-do list involves long hours spent synthesising our findings and key messages, producing reports and putting together guidance documents. It can be draining work. So I was happy to see an exciting distraction in my inbox this morning: an email from Tabitha Millett, the artist who came to our Symposium in July, sending a batch of photographs from the day.
I should backtrack and explain. Many months ago when we first started to discuss the research Symposium we decided we wanted to have some sort of creative element. We wanted to have some way for people to capture and share their personal experiences of child social care records, whether they were care-experienced, a social worker or an information manager. We settled on the idea of working with an artist, who would collaborate with symposium attendees to produce a piece of art during the breaks and lunchtime. Having secured some funding from UCL Impact and Engagement (thank you!) we found Tabitha, an artist with experience of doing this kind of work in conference settings and with diverse communities.
She suggested we create a textile piece that soon became known as The Plait. The concept was to invite everyone attending the conference to bring a small item or piece of fabric that resonated with their experiences of social care records. They could then stitch this on to one of three strips of felt fabric. Whatever they brought had to be something they were willing to leave behind, to become part of the final piece, so it could be symbolic rather than original if they preferred. For people who didn’t bring anything along, we supplied a lucky dip bag of fabric scraps that could be personalised. We also had fabric pens that could be used to annotate pieces, or to draw directly onto the base fabrics.
The backing fabrics were white, grey and black, to symbolise the record itself: the white paper, the grey text and the black redactions that people often receive. By writing and stitching feelings, opinions and experiences onto the fabric the aim was to capture everyone’s stories, and reflect on the value and meaning of records.
Some of the individual contributions were incredibly moving and powerful. One person attached the pink legal tape that had bound up their social care file, while another attached a bear key ring to symbolise the teddy bear that they had not been able to take with them into foster care.
Attendees also reflected on resilience and how past experiences had helped to make them who they are today. Others took the opportunity to ask practitioners and others to remember the power that records have in people’s lives.
At the end of the day the strands of The Plait were laid out for all to see, and then during the final session, while people shared stories about what they had contributed with the rest of the audience, it was plaited together into a braid. As the braid formed some people’s contributions were hidden inside, while others peeped out of the weave. It was a reminder of how all of our stories are woven together, but whereas some are visible, others are hidden. But even hidden they are still there, still vital and important, still sharing the same space.
As well as giving us lots to think about and talk about on the day, The Plait is also a lasting tangible reminder of the themes of MIRRA and of the importance of the research. The idea is that it can be unwound and added to at future events, and can be displayed to tell people’s stories. If you are interested to have The Plait at your event, to add to or display it, let us know.