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MIRRA: Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access

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Recordkeeping and the IICSA Interim Report

VictoriaHoyle25 June 2018

At the end of May my colleague Elizabeth Shepherd and I visited the London offices of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) to talk to staff about the MIRRA project and information rights in social care records. The Inquiry is investigating child sexual abuse in institutions, as well as institutional responses to abuse, and so has a very wide remit including schools, clubs, churches and family home, as well as foster placements and children’s residential homes. (You can find their full Terms of Reference on their website.)

Although the Panel is not exclusively focused on the care-experienced community many of IICSA’s investigations and findings touch on issues that are relevant to our research.  The release of the Panel’s interim report in April this year underlined that records and recordkeeping are high on their agenda.  The report is a 100+ page summary of the findings and recommendations IICSA has made so far from its 5 public investigations and the 1040 personal accounts of abuse by victims and survivors shared through The Truth Project.  The first Truth Project report found that around a quarter of witnesses had experienced sexual abuse whilst in care.[1]

Both reports make for difficult but essential reading, setting out the lifelong impacts of childhood sexual abuse and trauma, and confronting the ways in which our institutions have perpetuated and enabled it.  What makes IICSA’s interim report particularly relevant to MIRRA are the numerous references to the importance of records: as evidence for the investigation but also as personal resources for the victims and survivors of abuse.

In some cases they have been critical to the Inquiry’s work.  For example, records relating to Knowl View School in Rochdale showed that the local authority had been aware of sexual abuse allegations and had ignored them despite denials made at the hearing.[2]  In other cases poor records management or the complete absence of records has frustrated the process.  The Royal Overseas League, for example, has kept almost no information relating to its programme for migrating children to Australia.[3]  The same was found to be true at Cornwall County Council. The Inquiry stated that this could not be treated as an ‘unwitting oversight’ but ‘indicates a failure to have the welfare and needs of the children as priorities.’[4] The poor quality of recording and the mismanagement of records was an indicator of the quality of care that was received.

The lack of records or their poor management also ‘caused distress to the former child migrants who were affected’ throughout their lives.[5] The report recognises that poor recordkeeping prevents people from understanding their own histories and identities and delays them finding family members, including living parents and siblings.  In the themed findings of the report there is specific recognition that ‘Adult victims and survivors often face difficulties when trying to access records about their childhoods.’[6]  Later on the report extends this observation to say that it is true for anyone trying to discover information about their childhood in care.[7] This closely matches what we are finding in our research.

As yet IICSA hasn’t made any recommendations about records and recordkeeping. The current report does mention that the records of former child migrants should be ‘retained and preserved’ using ‘robust systems’ and that all relevant institutions ‘should provide easy access to them’ but this should presumably be extended more widely.[8]  It seems as though IICSA is considering just that:

This is a technical and complex area of public policy. There are different rules for the retention of records across the different institutions covered by the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference and the quality of record keeping also varies significantly… The Inquiry will consider whether it can recommend changes that would particularly benefit victims and survivors of child sexual abuse.[9]

During our visit to the Inquiry Elizabeth and I had the opportunity to discuss these changes and how our research could provide evidence to support the Inquiry’s recommendations in this area.  The Australian Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made a very strong and useful set of recommendations around recordkeeping and information sharing in its final report last year that could provide a model for England and Wales.

[1]        Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. “Victim and Survivor Voices from the Truth Project.Pdf.” IICSA, 2017. 66.

[2] Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, “Interim Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.” IICSA, 2018. 43.

[3] Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, “Child Migration Programmes Investigation Report.” IICSA, 2018. 109.

[4] IICSA, “Child Migration Programmes Investigation Report.” 112.

[5] “Interim Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.” 40.

[6] “Interim Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.” 68.

[7] “Interim Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.” 72.

[8] “Interim Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.” 40.

[9] “Interim Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.” 72.

A Care Leaver’s Story: Lost records, lost lives

VictoriaHoyle18 June 2018

This post has been contributed by a care leaver who has chosen to be anonymous. It’s the first of many posts sharing the real life experiences of people accessing their social care records.

I am going to share my story about my care records, but I am not going to share my name. That is not because I am embarrassed or ashamed of my care past – I have long ago come to terms with that – but because the information being shared would cause embarrassment and possibly distress to members of my family.

Information recorded about children in care, a routine feature of daily life in the care system, is profoundly important and can have an impact not just on the subject of the records but on those close to them for generations.  What is written, how it is written and the language used is so very important, but how rarely this impact seems to have been a consideration over the years.

I am a retired social worker with extensive experience of residential work and regulation who has worked around the care system for many years. I know about case recording. I am also care experienced and spent my entire childhood in care in multiple placements. I entered the care system as a toddler and was separated from four of my siblings across the UK. No steps were taken to maintain contact between the sibling group and it was 40 years before I met one of my brothers for the first time.

I was not given any information by social workers about why I was in care or my family background. Everything I knew I learned from older siblings who kept in touch with the older brother I was placed with. I knew very little indeed about my parents or family heritage.

Many years later as a social work professional, I visited a children’s home I had been placed in as a child. I told the manager I had been placed there as a kid and he was able to find an old review report about my brother and me. He showed me one page describing us as small children. My brother was described as cheerful and outgoing, me with my nose always in a book. That was the only truly descriptive information about my background that I ever saw.

Many years after I had been discharged from care I met the brother I had been separated from for 40 years. He wanted to see his care file and he had written to the local authority in whose care he had been placed. They had sent him his ‘file’. I knew from looking at it that it was a file of monthly visits to his carers made by an official from the council, not his care file. It told us little or nothing about the family.  We wrote back to the council and asked for his complete file. This time he was provided with a heavily redacted file of his childhood placements, but all family and historical information had been removed. He was told that he could not see that because it included information about others including his mother who had not consented. Our mother had died many years earlier so we were not impressed by this excuse.

We wrote again asking to see the family file, pointing out that our mother had died and offering the death certificate. After months, my brother was told he would be allowed to peruse the file but would have to travel to the local authority offices to see it under supervision.  Recently, he sought to make arrangements to attend with his daughter. He was told the file had since been ‘lost’ and they would let him know when they found it.

I was moved to seek my own care file. I wrote to the local authority who were responsible for me as a child in care. After a few weeks, I received a very polite but short letter of apology with a photocopy of what I recognised to be a ‘Movements Card’ attached. The local authority apologised to me because my file had been destroyed years earlier during some local authority reorganisation. All that they could find was this card, recording my movements through the care system from a toddler to age 18. It was a terse business-like document, like many records I had seen over the years in social work.

The card included the names and dates of birth of all my siblings. One was spelled incorrectly. It included a list of placements I had lived in. That list was incomplete, missing out several children’s homes and foster placements I was placed in.

The file included a contact address they had for my late mother. I knew the address. It was a hostel for homeless people. It also included a brief section including the reason for my being ‘received into care’.  It included the short sentence “Mother in HMP”. That was it.

I have been a social worker working in or with the care system all my life. I knew records were carelessly kept and people recorded without any thought that one day the people they were writing about might read their comments. Even so, I was shocked and angry at this single remaining record of 16 years of my life.  To the local authority it was a record of movements in care (incorrectly recorded). To me it was my childhood. My care file had been a collection of old papers that were in their way when the local authority reorganised its systems. It made sense to them to dispose of it when they modernised. In doing so, they destroyed possibly the only remaining history of my life with information about me that I can now never know.

My brother’s daughter is a highly skilled genealogist. She has traced most of our family, now spread across Canada, South Africa and Australia as well as the UK. We have pieced together my family history and heritage back to the mid eighteenth century. Due to one single administrative decision made by a local council, my history from the mid twentieth century is now lost for ever.

Introducing the MIRRA project

VictoriaHoyle12 June 2018

Personal records, photographs and family stories help people to remember significant events and milestones from childhood: where you went on holiday when you were 7, what part you had in your first school play or when you lost your first tooth.  But if you grew up in care these things may be missing or inaccessible.  Not only that but you might have a particularly complex personal story, involving lots of foster or residential placements and people coming into your life for brief periods.  As a result care leavers often have significant gaps in their stories and unanswered questions about their lives.  In the absence of family archives they turn to records held by the local authorities and charities that looked after them.  These organisational records are their personal histories, helping to create and reconstruct narratives about the past.

Photographs like this help us to remember our childhood.

Since the 19th century vast quantities of information about children and families has been collected as part of social work activity.  These files look different depending on when and where you were in care. They may have been produced by lots of people, including social workers, teachers, family, foster carers, residential care workers, health services and the police. In some cases files can run to 1000s of pages. Some may include highly personal things like photographs, letters and school reports while others are official, repetitive and full of jargon. Either way this ‘paper self’ is hugely important, both for how children and young people are understood and treated while they’re in care, and for how they understand and treat themselves later in life.

Charities and local authorities in England hold files on hundreds of thousands of people who have been in care.

Asking to see your care file is a big decision that can take years to make and the process is often difficult. Some records have been destroyed and others are lost in confused records management systems. People can wait over a year to receive any information. Where records survive they may be fragmentary, contradictory and contrast sharply with a person’s existing memories.  Information about family or carers might be blacked out – ‘redacted’ – and documents sometimes leave out the important emotional details.  Photographs, school reports, swimming certificates and other personal documents only survive in about 10-20% of cases. In other words care records often conceal or obscure as much as they reveal.  Care-experienced people report feelings of powerlessness, frustration, anger and trauma in trying to recover their childhoods from their files.  This isn’t the whole story – lots of people find positive things in their records too – but it’s definitely a recurring theme.

The Access to Records Campaign Group (a collaboration of voluntary organisations led by The Care Leavers Association) have been making the case for better support and resources for access to records for the last decade. Their 2016 report It’s My Journey, It’s My Life drew on the experiences of care leavers and social care practitioners, and set out the practical, legal and emotional challenges that face people who access their records.  The arrival of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in May 2018 and the role of records in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has also highlighted the value and complexity of social care files.

MIRRA is a research project that aims to support the rights of care leavers by exploring how child social care records have been created, kept and used in public and voluntary organisations in England from the mid-20th century to the present day.  The acronym stands for Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access.  It is a participatory action research project co-produced with care leavers in partnership with the Care Leavers Association. Ultimately it aims to make positive changes to social care recordkeeping and through those changes improve the care leavers’ experiences.

On this blog we will be sharing our research journey.  We will talk in more depth about the project and what we are doing, featuring posts from the research team and from care leavers and others.  If you have something you would like to contribute, please do get in touch.