This post has been contributed by Luke Geoghegan. Luke is Head of Policy and Research at The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and a member of our project advisory group. He writes here in a personal capacity.
Memory is central to our identity: for individuals, for families, for communities and ethnic and national groups. Memories are not just what we hold in our heads but also take concrete form and consist of documents, images and objects and this is true for individuals, families, ethnic groups and nations too.
So how does this connect with MIRRA? Well, social workers used to have something called a ‘memory box’ for children who were looked after. This contained documents, pictures and objects that were important or special in some way to the child. The child and the foster carer often chose together what should be in the box. Some of the contents were ‘serious’ e.g. school reports, some essential e.g. family photos and others more fun e.g. a ticket stub from an important football game. If the child moved placement the box went with them. The memory box was a means of helping to maintain identity. Being part of the MIRRA group made me think that in fact we all have memory boxes, although some memory boxes are bigger than others.
This is one of the Queen’s memory boxes. It holds pictures of her family (going back hundreds of years), documents (held in a library) and lots (and lots) of objects which she has special memories of. The Queen would still be the Queen if Buckingham Palace no longer existed, but this memory box is an important part of her identity. My memory box is a bit smaller, it’s about the size of a terrace house which is not surprising, since it is a terraced house. Here I keep my photos, documents and objects that are important to me, usually because they have a story attached to them. I am, in fact, a bit of a hoarder. If I move house, the contents of my memory box will go with me.
Some people choose to have a lot less in their memory box. My step-mother-in-law has a flat which is almost empty. Unlike me she gets rid of almost everything. However, she does have photos of her family and a few objects that are important to her. As adults we are responsible for choosing our concrete memories: what we keep, how much we keep and how we look after it. But as children and young people our parents are responsible for helping us keep these documents, photos and objects, that form part of our identity. Local authorities have ‘parental responsibility’ for children and young people who are looked after and I would argue this includes helping them collect and keep their ‘concrete memories’ – documents, photos, and objects – in safe place. In short, helping develop and look after the contents of their memory box.
In the local authority I worked in until a couple of years ago, as far as I could see, memory boxes were no longer part of routine work for social workers and the children they were responsible for. (Some foster carers could and did keep documents and photos for children). Why was this? I think there were three reasons. First, organisations decide what is important for their staff to do and while no-one said ‘stop doing memory boxes’ the effect of deciding what is important is to ‘crowd out’ other activities and I guess memory boxes were a casualty of decisions to focus on these ‘other things’. Of all the things we were supervised on, and measured by, and there were many, maintaining memory boxes was not one of them. Second, children and young people who are looked after often experience periods of placement instability. Periods post 18 are particularly vulnerable as young people move to fragile independence or all too often become ‘sofa-surfers’. At such times the contents of the memory box need to be kept safe. However, the reality was that there was very limited space for storage in the office. For example, social workers ‘hot desked’, there was a clear desk policy, and in our case we got two small lockable drawers so everything had to fit in there. This was, and is, a huge source of complaint for social workers, but it also had an impact on children and young people as well since it was very hard to look after things for them for even the shortest period. Third, and this is not just an issue for social workers and the people they work with, is that we have yet to learn how to properly manage the storage of digital materials, especially photographs. Around 2000 I burnt lots of digital photos to CD – and now these can’t be read because the original software is too old. More recently, I’ve just lost several years of holiday photos because my digital camera (remember those?) broke and I hadn’t backed up the images elsewhere. This all becomes much harder in a large bureaucracy where electronic case systems might not store images, where new software systems can’t read ‘old’ material, where the IT team don’t want too much on the server and where the storage of physical items, even paper files, is seen as costly to hold and administer.
Since 2008 social work, along with other public services, has had services reduced through the policy of austerity. In practice, austerity means less staff, doing more, with less resources. Documents, photos and objects are central to the identity of children and young people both when they are looked after and when they become adults and move to independence. To ensure these precious memories are gathered and kept safe will need investment both in the right resources but also to allow social workers time to undertake this work.