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MIRRA: Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access



Introducing the MIRRA project

By Victoria Hoyle, on 12 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.

8 Responses to “Introducing the MIRRA project”

  • 1
    Frank Golding wrote on 17 June 2018:

    Good luck with your project in the UK. We have been on a similar journey in Australia. You might like to see the Royal Commission’s Final Report Volume 8 which deals with Records & Recordkeeping at: https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/final_report_-_volume_8_recordkeeping_and_information_sharing.pdf

  • 2
    Victoria Hoyle wrote on 18 June 2018:

    Thanks so much for the links Frank – I’ll definitely be following them up. We’ve been very inspired by the work that has taken place in Australia around rights in records. When I first started on the project I was particularly grateful for your Latent Scrutiny article with Jacqueline Wilson in Archival Science. I’m looking forward to sharing ideas and findings as the UK journey unfolds.

  • 3
    Frank Golding wrote on 17 June 2018:

    And this is another project which you might find relevant:

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  • 5
    Jackie McCartney wrote on 30 June 2018:

    Sounds like a great project. I just received photos off me in care when I was 12. I’m now 51 an only just got them.

  • 6
    Miranda Morgan wrote on 20 July 2019:

    I recently attended an event on the Rights of a Child to Access Records hosted by the MIRRA project and met with key people like Frank Golding, Elizabeth Denham, Victoria Hoyle and some incredible care leavers who shared their testimonies. I was particularly taken by each and everyones journey to accessing their records. The one care leaver that stood out for me was a gentleman who could not access his records because they don’t appear to exist, yet he spent many years in the care of the state. I cannot imagine for one moment how this much feel for him. To have no records, photos, an explanation of the reasons for your entry into care, as though you don’t exist or considered unimportant, is shockingly unacceptable. We are dealing with human beings who have thoughts and feelings.

    As a social worker working in fostering I have always trained and coached foster carers into the importance of being the Guardian Angel’s of childhood memories for the children and young people in their care. I strongly believe this is the collective responsibility of all those who are part of the team around the child, and we must help capture and preserve these memories for our children in care. One day our children will return to access their records and they will need to know the journey of their childhood, why certain decisions were made, why they could not live with their birth parents, and they will need to know that they were important, cared for, loved, respected, held in high esteem, nurtured and are valuable members of society who have the right to be empowered and live fulfilling lives.

    I took so much away with me from the day and in part I was pleased I’d been on the right track about capturing childrens memories and stories but equally I learned how I can improve my practice and make changes that will ultimately benefit care leavers.

  • 7
    ‘Despatches from the Fourth Quadrant’: Three observations from this year’s Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities (DCDC) conference | Jisc Content and Digitisation wrote on 29 November 2019:

    […] – with our fellow panellists Dr Anna Sexton from University College London, whose work on the MIRRA project connects people who grew up in care with their own pasts, and Hannah Smith from the Postal […]

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    Can children, young people & their families ‘own’ their records? – Social Work 2020 under Covid-19 wrote on 2 June 2020:

    […] we could improve our record keeping and our families access to what is written about them. The MIRRA (Memory – Identity – Rights in Record – Access) project was one of the sources of inspiration for my work on this subject and tells the stories of […]

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