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MIRRA: Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access

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Archive for September, 2018

For the Record by John-george Nicholson

17 September 2018

This post has been contributed by John-george Nicholson and was originally published on his blog, Own Two Feet, where he writes about his childhood in care. 

Recently I’ve started writing about my experience in care. I don’t know what all the words will become, but I’m enjoying doing it. As a kid I was never a big writer. I liked writing when I had to do it for school, but that was about it. But what got me putting pen to paper was getting my care file a few years ago.

Let me take a step back… one day I was sitting in a training session at work, one of those ones you have to go to that is normally a waste of time. It was on data protection (making sure you kept people’s addresses and dates of birth and stuff like that safe). I didn’t think it meant a lot to me, but in the session the trainer said everybody is entitled to see any data that anyone holds on them.

It got me thinking. I realised there must be loads of stuff held on me from when I was in care (social worker reports, carer reports, police reports, psychologist reports, school reports etc). I was living in Birmingham at the time, but phoned up Wandsworth Social Services and asked if I could have all the information they held on me. The woman didn’t have much of a clue what I was talking about, but said she would look into it. Time passed and I forgot about it.

About six months later a parcel arrived. I was late for work, quickly signed for it and stuffed it in my bag. That day it was pouring with rain. Typing now, it seems like yesterday. I remember I was still drunk from celebrating a promotion the day before. In the rush I put on the clothes I was wearing the day before. Great way to start the new job. Anyway, I ran for my bus, got it, sat upstairs at the front and remembered this random package in my bag. I opened it up and inside was a red folder. I was confused and wondered if it was for me. I began reading.

It was my life in care written by other people. It started with a chronology of all the places I had been and then there were pages and pages of different reports. I wasn’t ready for it. I put my hood up and sat on that bus for an hour and cried my eyes out. I read the whole thing and cried all the way to work.

When you live in care you block a lot of stuff out. Any of you reading this in care will know what I mean. There’s so much stuff to deal with that some things you just have to block out. It doesn’t stop it happening, but you make a place for it and you stuff all that shit in there (you don’t have to be in care to have that place, we’ve all got it, but some are just bigger than others). I’ve still got that place, but more and more as I get older I find myself visiting that place and remembering, trying to work stuff out. Some stuff I never will, but I think when you’re ready it’s good to go back and look at things with fresh eyes.

So back to the file. I got off the bus, dried my eyes and went to work. I hid the file away and didn’t look at it for a long time. One of the things that hurt was that in all the words that the file possessed, mine were missing. There was hardly anything from me. I don’t know, have times changed now? Do young people fill out their own reports to add to all the other people’s reports? Someone out there please tell me? Do young people get the chance to have their say and to write that say down on paper?

Words said out loud often get lost in time, but words on the page stick. These words in my file have certainly stuck with me and are still a big influence on me. But as I’ve got older I’m starting to find my own way around them and around my time in care.

I’m starting to build my own history. I’m more than the file. I’m more than someone that was in care. I once let being in care define me, but now I’m much more than that.

But the file is still important to me. It’s like an anchor to my childhood. It’s like a map of where I’ve been. So I started this blog saying I wasn’t sure where I was going and here we are and I think I’ve already written too much. I just want to finish by saying to anyone who is in care that you have the right to see all the stuff people write about you. That’s your right. But be careful if you ever want to see your file. I wasn’t ready when I got mine. I didn’t get any warning and to be honest it messed me up for a bit. But now I’m so glad I did get it and still have it. Now I see it as a gift. It’s not an easy read, but as much as there is a lot of pain in there, there is also a lot of joy. I’ve been given memories that would have been lost.

Now I’m not saying that I agree with everything in the file, some of it is outright lies. You know how social workers and foster carers can be. They don’t always get it and their version of things is sometimes not how it was, but nobody’s perfect. I know my version of some things is definitely not perfect. It’s funny looking back now at the file because sometimes the people writing the reports so didn’t get it, so I would advise maybe keeping your own file, writing down your own thoughts (of course just for yourself, you don’t have to share them with anybody) so that when you get your file one day like I did you can have something to compare it to.

Speaking at the Archives and Records Association Conference

10 September 2018

On the 30th August Darren, Gina, Andrew and I (Victoria) attended the annual Archives and Records Association conference in Glasgow to talk about MIRRA and about the value of social care records for memory and identity.  The 30 minute session was attended by over 30 archivists, records managers and conservators from the UK, Australia and the USA.  We chose not to do a traditional conference paper but instead combined personal testimonies with interactive exercises to get people thinking and talking about the issues.  We wanted our audience to think about two key questions:

  • How and why are records like care records valuable for memory and identity?
  • How can we improve the way archivists and records managers look after and provide access to them for these purposes?

We left these questions purposefully open because although some people in the room worked with care records others didn’t. While we were talking specifically about care leavers’ experiences we wanted to show how the same lessons could be applied to working with any personal sensitive information, such as health or education records.

After a brief introduction to the project we asked the audience to take part in a quick-fire exercise to get them thinking about what it means to rely on organisational records to tell your life story.  They used pink post-it notes to note down records from childhood that they or their family members had, and yellow post-it notes to write down records about them held by organisations.  We then asked them to imagine reconstructing a narrative of events only from the yellow post-it notes as many care leavers must do.

Darren and Gina then spoke about their personal experiences of accessing care files and the positive and negative impacts that it had on them.  Both touched on some of the structural and practical difficulties of the access process, including navigating bureaucracy and redaction, as well as the emotional and personal challenges.  Darren talked about his work with The Care Leavers’ Association supporting other care leavers to access their records, including people currently in prison.  Afterwards many people said how important and powerful it had been to hear directly from care leavers and to see about how recordkeeping decisions had affected their lives. It put everyday processes and procedures into a new perspective.

This helped to feed into the next exercises where we asked the audience to:

1) Share what they saw to be the challenges to providing access to personal records

2) Suggest changes that could be made to improve services to care leavers and others.

Many familiar themes emerged during the discussion: the limits of Data Protection legislation, making decisions about redacting third party information, finding and identifying the right records, lack of training in how best to support the process and the emotional impact on the archivist and records manager.  It was heartening to see the number of changes people thought could be made though, from the ambitious (changing the legislation) to the actionable (development of training).  The key message that emerged was the importance of putting the care leaver first in the process – a response that seemed directly connected to having heard the personal stories earlier in the session.  Almost half of the attendees said that they would change something in their work as a result of being at the workshop, which is a great result.

Afterwards Darren, Gina and I met up with Nicola Laurent and Michaela Hart from Australia to talk about the work they have done there with the Find and Connect web resource. It was an opportunity to share the learning that they’ve done over the last ten years in supporting care leavers, former child migrants and the Stolen Generations of aboriginal children to find and access their records.  We hope that in the long term we can move towards a similar level of recognition and investment in supporting care leavers’ memory and identity.