Almost two weeks have passed since we welcomed over 100 people to UCL for a day of presentations and discussion about access to records and child social care recordkeeping. Care leavers, researchers, social care practitioners, regulators, policymakers and records and information professionals all came together to share their experiences and thoughts. It was a powerful, emotional and extremely productive event which gave me lots of things to reflect on. So much so that I have struggled to collect my thoughts and unpick my feelings in the days since.
In large part I think this is because conferences, symposiums and research events are not always (not even often) about feelings and emotions. They are usually focused on findings and outputs, on presentations and publications. While the symposium included elements of all of those things, it was first and foremost about hearing and responding to the voices of experience. Throughout the day 11 of our care-experienced co-researchers shared their experiences of accessing and reading their care records. Each focused on the aspect of the MIRRA research that has meant the most to them. Linda spoke about reliving the day she was taken into care through her records, and the judgemental, inhumane way she was described as a child. Jackie shared images of her heavily redacted files and spoke about her campaign to change the way Birmingham City Council provides access to records. Brett talked about his ongoing search to find his care records, including the frustration of being told by multiple local authorities that they have no trace of him. John-george described the shock of receiving his file without warning through the post, only to discover that his voice was completely absent from it.
I know from the feedback cards filled in at the end of the day that listening to these testimonies was very important for the practitioners present, many of whom had never heard a care leaver speak about records before. Feelings and practice were brought together in a way which, we hope, will inspire people to think differently about the day-to-day actions of recording or redacting. The professional audience was left with some clear and vital messages about how things could be improved. Rosie, a social worker herself, exhorted the social workers present to be mindful of language and tone when writing records, while Sam was passionate in arguing that everything a corporate parent does, including creating or providing access to records, should come from a place of love. Gina shared her positive access to records experience and suggested that psychological and practical support should be provided for every care leaver who wants it, no matter their age. Listening to everyone speak so eloquently and forcefully made me feel incredibly proud and honoured to be able to speak and work alongside the whole team.
In addition to reaching the hearts and changing the minds of those in the room, our goal has always been to embed long term change. There were signs that this may be happening. The event began with a keynote address from Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner, who set the scene by acknowledging that information rights, and especially rights of access to information, are about people. We were particularly pleased to hear her say that subject access requests from care leavers, made under GDPR and the Data Protection Act, should be treated with sensitivity. She talked about discretion in making redactions, and about the importance of support and care during the process. When taking questions from the audience she reiterated that organisations who hold care records needn’t be risk averse: the Information Commissioner’s Office has never taken action against anyone for the use of discretion while processing care files. These were very important points, which we intend to continue discussing with the Commissioner’s staff at the ICO as the basis for best practice guidance.
Later in the day we heard from Luke Geoghegan, the Head of Policy and Research at the British Association of Social Workers, about their commitment to publish new practice guidance on recordkeeping, written in collaboration with us. During the same session David Holmes, the CEO of the charity Family Action, spoke about the work we are doing together to create an interactive website for care leavers (and adopted people) to support them to access and understand care records. We will be contributing content and advice to this new site, which will be called Family Connect and is due to launch later this year. Last but certainly not least Darren Coyne shared the latest updates from the Access to Care Records Campaign group, who are currently producing National Standards for Access to Records for Adult Care Leavers. We have been supporting this work, which we hope will be endorsed by the Department for Education.
At the end of the day, feeling both exhausted and elated, I was left with a strong conviction of the value and potential of research for contributing to positive change. This change might be at the level of the individual, who alters a small element of their work practice, or at the level of national policy and regulation. In both cases, it seems to me, the change arises not only through the research findings but by connecting those findings to feelings. For me the symposium succeeded the most in demonstrating why MIRRA matters, through the voices of the people it matters to most.