A Care Leaver’s Story: Lost records, lost lives
By Victoria Hoyle, on 18 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.