The original MIRRA
MIRRA is an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project based at UCL and led by Professor Elizabeth Shepherd. It began in October 2017 and was initially funded until October 2019. Information about our current follow-on project, MIRRA+ can be found here.
For this original project, we undertook a detailed study of the public and voluntary sectors in England responsible for the management of child social care records and data. The team considered recordkeeping practices both current and historic (from 1970). England was the study setting (as it is for MIRRA+) because of the specific national legal frameworks and structure of care provision, although findings were contextualised with comparative national examples from Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Canada.
A survey of the literature and relevant research resources drew on expertise and learning from relevant disciplines such as information rights and records policy; archives and records management; social care; and organisational structures and management. The content of legislation, codes of practice and guidance and public policy on information rights were analysed.
Primary data collection was undertaken using a mixed methods approach was adopted to, gathering qualitative data from respondents from four communities of knowledge, expertise and practice. In addition to those itemised above, working also on MIRRA+ (care-experienced people, social workers and information professionals), academic researchers, such as social scientists who use social care data in their work were also recruited. Drawing on these multiple perspectives enabled us to collect richer data and provided a measure of triangulation of the findings. Workshops and events were held with participants, as well as individual semi-structured interviews, enabling the expression of a range of experiences and views.
Despite the participation of individuals and groups with different skills and expertise, the research was nevertheless oriented towards the perspectives and viewpoints of care leavers themselves, as the people with a personal and emotional stake in social care records. Their expertise and knowledge was given precedence in the research design and outcomes. This was particularly important in rebalancing the distribution of power in relation to care records, which is usually tipped in favour of practitioners and policy-makers. For these reasons, a Participatory Design Group of care-experienced people was involved at every stage of the project delivery, from design and data collection through to publication.
The study found that revisiting childhood by seeking one’s care record often coincided with significant moments of reflection, for example, when leaving care, moving into a new career or the birth of a child. The majority of co-researchers were interested to explore how and why things had happened to them, often to use records to create a cohesive narrative of cause and effect. Another motivation was simply to recall or add to autobiographical memories. This wasn’t helped by the paucity of photographs and other personal memory objects. Care leavers generally had only one or two images of themselves as children. Records were also fallible and difficult to trust. This narrowness of perspective was compounded by the lack of opportunities for children and young people to contribute to or participate in the process of record-making themselves, and on the rare occasions when care leavers did find evidence of their own voice, it was highly meaningful to them.
Social workers preserved instances of behaviour in a way that a parent never would, pathologizing actions that would be considered normal in another context. Split second decisions, like smashing a plate in anger, become literally embodied in the record which then followed an individual for the rest of their lives. In addition, contributors agreed that there were things in their files that were either wrong or misleading or diverged from their own experience of events.
A compounding problem was that in many cases information relating to third parties and other sensitive content had been redacted to protect the privacy of individuals. Redaction is challenging to implement in the case of complex interpersonal care files which by their nature contain information relating to parents, siblings and other family. However, this information is often critical to a person’s life story. Redaction decisions can be fraught and subjective – and are most likely to occur where records relate to key relationships or moments.
Despite these inadequacies, records did provide the care leavers with vital information to build autobiographical memory and renew their sense of identity. The picture that was formed might align with or diverge from the records to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the individual, but in either case accessing their file provided a catalyst for therapeutic reflection. MIRRA thus suggested that the emphasis of recording should be shifted away from organization-centred risk management and towards assessments that centre the needs of individuals for memory curation, care, and kindness, and for ownership and rights to their personal information throughout life. This could be made possible, without contravening the needs of safeguarding and legal outputs, through a ‘person-centred’ approach to the creation and management of records. Hence our current work on participatory record-keeping system design.
A comprehensive account of the full project results can be found in Hoyle et al (2019). Other project publications and resources can be found in our Resources page.
Participatory practices and impact were central to the MIRRA project design. MIRRA produced practical guidance for care leavers to access their records enabling them to exercise their information rights better; changed policy makers’ understandings of the operation of the Data Protection Act on looked-after children’s information rights; and improved records management and child social care recording through the provision of new Principles for Caring Recordkeeping. One significant output was FamilyConnect, a website for care leavers based on project findings, built by the charity Family Action. It has already been accessed by thousands of users and recognized with a UCL Provost’s Public Engagement Community Award . The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) published Top Tips: Recording in Children’s Social Work in August 2020, which explicitly referenced MIRRA’s research to explain why it is important to capture children’s voices in their records. BASW proposes practices that will improve child social workers’ ability to record reflective, person-centred records efficiently.
Hoyle, V., Shepherd, E., Lomas, E. and Flinn, A. (2019) Child Social-Care Recording and the Information Rights of Care-Experienced People: A Recordkeeping Perspective, The British Journal of Social Work, 49(7) pp. 1856–1874 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcy115