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MIRRA: Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access

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Archive for June, 2019

The phone rings: A case study

VictoriaHoyle25 June 2019

This post is written by Craig Fees, archivist at the Planned Environment Therapy Trust Archive and Study Centre, 1988-2018. 

The phone rings. Out of the blue: A former child in residential care, from a place whose archives we hold. This is already special. Here is a voice reaching sixty years into the past to bring this children’s community into the present, and bringing a subsequent lifetime with it.

He’s heard we may have his file. We do. Can he come to see it? He can. He’s partly disabled; he will take the train to a nearby station – we have a small rural one I recommend. Can I recommend a taxi firm? No, I will pick him up (and take him back!). We have onsite accommodation if he wanted to stay overnight. No, he wants to come up and go back on the same day. This first conversation lasts the better part of an hour – because I know something about the place and know the names of members of staff and even fellow children as he mentions them, and he wants to talk to someone for whom the place is important and has meaning. It’s fascinating, and I ask whether he might possibly be willing to record such a discussion, if there’s time, when he’s here? The recording would be confidential unless or until he agreed otherwise, having had a copy of the recording (we don’t always have the resources to provide a transcript; but that would be ideal). I explain how it’s held securely, and that people either could or could not see it, depending on what he wished; it would be entirely in his hands. But there might not be time, and it might well be something he would not want to do anyway. But I do want to convey that what he is saying is important, and would be of immense interest to future generations. Or should be! I want him to know that he and his experience are important.

We talk about data protection, and what I will do to make the file available to him: I will go page by page through it, with an eye for third party information which might need to be redacted; I explain the legal parameters guiding redaction; and I explain that because the file is a private document about him, and from my point of view is none of my business,  a) once I have been through the file I am unlikely to remember in any detail what is in it, because I will be reading it instrumentally and not for information about him or his life, and b) I will not redact anything unless it is absolutely legally necessary, because the more detailed and complete the record I can put into his hands, the more value it is likely to have for him. I ask him for three things before I start: some proof that he is who he says he is, so that I don’t release information to someone I shouldn’t; any information he can share about who I might encounter in the file (family members; fellow children; foster carers…),  and if he can let me know whether any are alive or dead; and formal permission to go through his file. Of course he is unlikely to say no to the latter; we both understand that. But it is important to me that he is the one who makes the decision, and gives the permission for this stranger to go into his intimate childhood. It is not just a formality. Are there any charges? No, although as a small charity we never say no to donations. But we don’t want anything to stand between an individual and access to their file.

I meet him at the station. We readjust the car to meet his physical situation. I tell him we have a twenty-five minute ride. We talk: it’s beautiful countryside; he’s come from London. He asks about me, about my background and where I’m coming from, so we talk about that. I tell him I have set up my office with his file, and am happy to be in there with him, or to shut the door and let him have it to himself. He won’t be disturbed if he doesn’t want to be. When we arrive I make coffee and biscuits. I explain the very few redactions I’ve made, how he will know when he comes across them, and what they mean: for example,  in the filing system in his childhood children from the same authority often had papers mixed together, or the children were bundled together into a single piece of correspondence. Since he knew who he travelled to and from the place with (and has mentioned them), I would not remove that kind of information. But where there were personal details about the other child or their home situation, for example, I would.

He elects to be alone with his file. The phone is unplugged, there are no limits on time, and there are no other visitors expected. I will be somewhere around if he needs me. Eventually, he emerges and we talk. He shares his views on his file, and his child’s eye view of its depictions. There are factual inaccuracies in it. Some things have fallen into place for him. We don’t record; it’s not appropriate.  But he invites me to meet him some time for coffee in London. I take him back to the train. We email. We meet in London, and he talks about the place some more, about his life, about the experience of accessing his file, and something of what he learned. He has a second hot chocolate, and I have a second coffee. London is his home ground, and he makes sure I know the best route back to the train. I am in the loop when I hear, from a member of his family some months later, that he has died.

Each request is unique, comes differently, and unfolds in its own particular way. But if done well the underlying philosophy of welcome, of being at the service and disposal of, of adapting to, of making possible, of conveying the meaning and significance of, of learning about and from should be consciously or unconsciously experienced by every person seeking their file, as is a sense of sharing responsibility and of working together. The ultimate source of one’s orientation as an archivist is love, or, more simply, a profound respect and treasuring of people, of records,  and of the possibility when they come together; with a healthy respect for boundaries, and for the potential of traumatic experience to spring surprises, including the surprise of having no bearing at all; the knowledge that archivists are not therapists, but people; and with a fundamental understanding that whatever the emotional dynamics of the encounter with their records, that experience is theirs, and not ours. We are guests in their lives, and the unique privilege of the archivist is to set the stage for their encounter with their file; to provide an environment which is welcoming, informed, and safe; and to be available if and as called for, with the willing understanding that one may not be called or needed at all. Which is excellent; to be invisible and forgotten is a privilege as well.

How can practitioners change records for the better?

VictoriaHoyle17 June 2019

Social care recordkeeping is a complex system, with many dozens of people involved in contributing to, preserving and providing access to just one person’s file.  Multiply that by the 72,000+ children and young people currently in care and there are 100,000s of practitioners involved in producing and maintaining social care records all across the country.  If we’re going to change and improve recordkeeping practice then reaching that audience is a high priority.  Earlier this year we secured an additional £15,000 of funding for the MIRRA project to share our research more widely and talk to social work and information professionals about records’ issues and why they matter.* We started working in close partnership with the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the Archives and Records Association (ARA) to reach out to sectors that very rarely talk to one another.

Group exercises, London Workshop, 6th June 2019

As part of a programme of events (including our sold-out conference on 18th July – you can join the waiting list if you didn’t manage to get a place) we recently hosted two workshops with practitioners in London and Manchester.  With over 60 people attending in total, from a range of backgrounds in the public, voluntary and private sectors, from children’s home managers to information governance managers, we generated a lot of brilliant and interesting discussion.  Many of the topics will be familiar: the challenge of depleted budgets and resources, both for Children’s Services and records work; the complexities of digital recording systems; and the legacy of less-than-ideal practices from the past.  At the beginning of the session we premiered a video we have made about the MIRRA project with our care-experienced research team (link coming soon!), which helped to keep the debate rightly focused on the impact records have on care-experienced people.

Visual Minutes from the London Workshop, by Raquel Duran (More Than Minutes).

A visual minute taker joined us at both events to illustrate the conversations as they developed, and help us to see both consensus and actions emerging.  These artworks highlight some of the key priorities the workshops identified, which in turn will help us to develop the resources practitioners need for better recordkeeping. The first step was convincing people they needed to act, and now the second will be providing them with tools to help. This is something I will be focusing on over the next five months as the project comes to the end of its first phase.  Here are just some of the most critical lessons we learnt during the sessions:

  • Social care teams and information/records management teams rarely work together or communicate regularly. They inhabit very different worlds, culturally and practically. All of the guidance we produce has to speak to both sectors and encourage practitioners to work together. The less fragmented recordkeeping is the better.
  • Training in recordkeeping is needed at all levels. We’ve often talked about training for social workers or records managers, but the complexity of the system means we need a holistic approach. Everyone who works with children and young people or their records should have training.
  • The regulatory and inspection regimes provided by Ofsted and the Information Commissioner’s Office are very important but can have a negative impact on recordkeeping, creating risk averse and inflexible approaches. Children, young people and care leavers get squeezed out by processes that are designed to fit a standard rather than support the individual. Activism is needed to work with the regulators to establish child-centred, care-centred recordkeeping as best practice.
  • Thinking about records in terms of retention schedules, performance management and accountability doesn’t properly reflect their importance as memory and identity resources. If we shift our thinking about who records are for and why they are so vital then we can make small changes that support people. For example, we can write records in children’s own words rather than paraphrasing them, and we can extend the time we keep them beyond the minimum retention to the life time of the person they are about. Small actions like this, taken on a case-by-case basis, can make a huge difference.

Visual minutes from Manchester Workshop, by Rowan Watts.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the workshops. I’m looking forward to sharing the resources we create very soon. Watch out for the link to the short film when it’s released and do share it on social media.

*This funding was from the UKRI’s Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), via UCL’s Innovation and Enterprise programme.

“Why was I in care?”

VictoriaHoyle4 June 2019

For the past four months I have been working on coding and analysing the interviews, workshops and focus groups we’ve conducted with nearly 100 care experienced people, social workers, records managers and others involved in child social care recordkeeping.  There is a huge amount of information to sift through and categorise, but the help of our analysis software NVivo I can now see clear themes and shared experiences emerging.  One thing that has struck me time and again is how often a care leaver says they wanted to access their records to find out why they were taken into care, or to better understand the circumstances around going into care.  Information governance practitioners have also told us this is the most common reason why someone makes a subject access request for their records.

Recent research in Northern Ireland suggests that the struggle to answer this fundamental question starts whilst someone is in care.  Linda McGill and colleagues have demonstrated the high numbers of children and young people who are confused about their personal circumstances and why they are in care (McGill et al, 2018).  McGill’s research suggests that social workers struggle to communicate a consistent and honest response to questions from children, who often hear different stories from different people at different times.  This uncertainty may be internalised as feelings of blame, shame or fear (Hughes, 2009). It can lead to the construction of damaging stories that make sense to the child but are far from reality.  For example, that they are to blame for being taken into care because they were naughty or because they failed to stop a bad thing from happening.  Our own research shows that these feelings and stories stay with people throughout their lives. Several of the adult care leavers who have contributed to the MIRRA project have spoken about it.  They wanted to access their records to find out why they were taken into care in order to dispel these lifelong feelings of guilt and fear.

“Why was I taken into care?” It sounds like a simple question, but it’s anything but.  Quite often the answer is complex and cumulative, and difficult to locate in an individual’s records.  As it often forms part of documents used in care proceedings it may be wrapped up in legalese, jargon and references to legislation.  Or alternatively, in some more recent digital records, it may be recorded using tick boxes that identify ‘factors’ in the social workers’ decision, lacking nuance and narrative.  At the point of access the information is also highly likely to be redacted because of the role that ‘third parties’ such as parents, siblings and other carers have played. As a result it can be one of the great unanswered questions of the access process.

When people do get an answer the positive emotional and psychological impact can be enormous.  Our co-researcher Gina has described how seeing her records finally helped her to realise that being in care wasn’t her fault:

“…right through up until I got my file I thought it was my fault, because I was a naughty child or whatever. It was only when I read through my file that it made me realise it actually wasn’t my fault and that helped me to move on. That was really important for me.”

Another of our interviewees described how his brother still blamed himself over twenty years later:

“…my brother… he built this idea up that we all went in to care because [of him]. That was the narrative that the whole family had got a grip on. But when I accessed my care files that was just the reason for the initial referral. When social services came in it was then another thing and another thing and another thing, there was sexual abuse and then we went in to care. He didn’t know any of that.”

I’m now writing guidance for practitioners about how to approach recordkeeping with love, from a human-centred perspective and plan to make two key recommendations around this critical issue. Firstly, we will be echoing McGill et al (2018) by highlighting the need to talk to children and young people sensitively and often about their life circumstances, so that they develop an organic understanding of what has happened and why. Secondly, that records about care decisions should be written as if they were being addressed to the child, so that they are clear and understandable. Thirdly, by urging those who handle requests for access to records from older care leavers to treat information about why they were taken into care as their information, even where it also touches on other people (‘third parties’).  As our co-researcher Isa puts it:

“…when somebody goes in to care nothing is third party. If it’s the reason why you went in to care, it’s not third party.”

Confronting the difficult reality of why someone is or was in care through these recordkeeping practices could make a real difference to how they see themselves and remember their childhood.