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MIRRA: Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access

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Archive for September, 2019

A goodbye, thankfulness and new beginnings

VictoriaHoyle23 September 2019

Research often feels like something that happens behind closed doors. Over the two years that I’ve worked on the MIRRA project I have spent many hours alone in my office (or at my dining table!), just me, a computer screen and the clack of my keyboard.  This is undoubtedly where a lot of the work of thinking, analysing, understanding and writing has been done; but it isn’t where the meaning or satisfaction in my job has come from.  That has come, without fail, from the amazing people that I have worked alongside and from the change we’ve started to make together.  When I was doing my PhD I often quizzed myself about my decision to go into research, and worried that becoming an ‘academic’ would take me away from the real world and the real life concerns of people. I’m inexpressibly grateful that my first full-time job as an academic researcher proved those fears were wrong, in so many ways.  Research is what we make it, and with MIRRA we have all had an opportunity to make something powerful and heartfelt.

That’s an emotional way to begin this post, but it seems fitting since MIRRA has been an emotional project: it’s about memory, identity and our need to understand ourselves, which are all very emotional things. I’ve often felt full of feelings while working on it. I am full of feelings now as the project, at least this phase of it, comes to a close. The current funding for MIRRA finishes in mid-October 2019, which means that my role as Research Associate is almost over. I will be leaving UCL at the end of this week (28th September), to take up a new job at the University of York. This is incredibly sad for me, because I will miss working with everyone in the research team so much; but it is also very exciting, as the new project I will be working on also promises to make a difference to people’s lives.

The MIRRA Research Team. Left to right: Linda, John-george, Darren, Rosie, Brett, Isa, Gina, Me! (Victoria), Sam, Elizabeth (UCL), Emmanuel and Elizabeth (UCL).

I am grateful and humbled that I have had the opportunity to work with my care-experienced colleagues on MIRRA. Prior to starting on the project I had very little knowledge or understanding of child social care, and no personal experiences. I was an outsider, but people welcomed me in. I would like to particularly thank the core and extended research group – Darren, Andi, Gina, Linda, Isa, Rosie, John-george, Jackie, Emmanuel, Brett and Sam – but also all of those who shared their life stories or experiences and placed their trust in me, in person, by email or on Twitter. Practitioners and other researchers have also been very generous, both with their time and their thoughts. It’s safe to say that while I have learnt a lot about care and care experiences over the last two years, I have learnt even more about how to be a good researcher and a good human.

MIRRA doesn’t end here though! The other members of the research group at UCL, Elizabeth Shepherd, Elizabeth Lomas and Andrew Flinn, will be picking up the reins and carrying the work forward.  They will be continuing to work with legislators and regulators on improving recordkeeping and access to records, and creating and sharing guidance for care leavers and practitioners. Twitter and the website will still be updated.  They will be joined by a new colleague, Anna Sexton, who will be leading on follow-on funding applications to extend and expand the work. Anna isn’t completely new to the project, as she worked on the original pilot study back in the summer of 2017.

We are currently waiting to hear about another year’s worth of money from our current funder, the AHRC, which would allow UCL to start developing a recordkeeping system for social workers that focuses on memory and identity rather than risk and performance management. If that bid is successful the project will start early in 2020.  The team is also beginning to discuss the next large scale bid, which will widen the research to other services and agencies who have similar record-keeping issues including mental health provision, criminal and youth justice, immigration and adult social care. The aim is to keep records high up on people’s radar, and to emphasise the role they play in shaping our lives as both individuals and as citizens.

You can contact the team with your thoughts and queries:

Elizabeth Shepherd – e.shepherd@ucl.ac.uk

Elizabeth Lomas – e.lomas@ucl.ac.uk

Anna Sexton – a.sexton.11@ucl.ac.uk

Andrew Flinn – a.flinn@ucl.ac.uk

If you would like to stay in touch with me and my future work, you can find me on Twitter as @Vicky_Hoyle, or contact me via email at victoria.hoyle@york.ac.uk.

Take care everyone, and thank you again.

Caring Records Management: A Case Study

VictoriaHoyle19 September 2019

This post has been kindly contributed by Michelle Conway (IMS Team Manager (Records)) and Imogen Watts (Corporate and Digital Records Manager) from Gloucestershire County Council. 

Recently, at the MIRRA Symposium, we were reminded that organisations have a lifelong responsibility as the corporate “parents” of care-experienced individuals to safeguard their records and make this information available to them. While we, as information professionals, would wholeheartedly agree to these principles, the reality is that record-keeping and record-sharing practices historically have not always matched.

Our organisation, like many others, has not done things perfectly. However, over the last four years, we have been running a project to improve the accessibility of our historical childcare files and the information within them.

The Historical Children’s Records Project (HCRP) began in March 2016 with the aims to:

  • Identify historical childcare files held across the council’s estate and transfer them to the central Records Centre where they would be indexed in our records database and placed into secure storage;
  • Improve the indexing of historical childcare files already stored in the Records Centre. No small task, considering there were over 80,000 of these in storage!

How was this born, you ask? Well, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s (IICSA) requirement that organisations make children’s records accessible for inquiries (plus the subsequent moratorium on the destruction of children’s records) prompted us to take a long hard look at how records were being managed and to acknowledge that “J Smith” as a file title was an inadequate identifier. An external audit of the availability of the council’s safeguarding records also highlighted issues of identifying what and where records were being kept and the impact of this on responding adequately to subject access requests. The council judged that the risks were high enough to warrant funding for a project team and we have been able to secure funding on this basis year on year.

Initially, the project felt like a Pandora’s Box: visiting 55 council properties has demonstrated the weird and weirder places that uncatalogued records have been stored (including in the kitchen sink and roof rafters), with over 12,000 files transferred to the Records Centre in the project’s first year. Conducting records surveys as part of office moves and decommissioning of premises is now becoming part of business as usual, as we’ve recognised that if we aren’t proactive, records will literally become hidden.

We use the RAFTs database to identify key people in each record.

The indexing process has been equally eye-opening. Taking a risk-based approach, we decided to prioritise administrative and case files from residential children’s homes. Records are indexed in our Records Centre database, RAFTS, and as we reviewed the file entries, we found that whilst files had basic metadata attached to them, this metadata was incomplete and didn’t accurately identify all the individuals whose information was contained in the files. For example, a case file for J(ane) Smith would primarily contain information about her but it would also hold key data relating to her parents – e.g. Peter Smith -; siblings; and caseworkers. We added key metadata (names; DoBs; relationships) to the database entries to ensure that if someone searched for information on Peter Smith, Jane’s file would come up in the search results, as well as any files where Peter was the main subject.

This work has positively supported the work of our Information Requests team, as it provides them with a greater certainty that when they search RAFTS, they are signposted to the information they need. This helps ensure care leavers are given all the information they are entitled to.

Through the work to improve the historical file index entries, the project team has amassed a wealth of knowledge on social care files through the years and the issues that have been rife in historical information recording practices – which vary dramatically over time. We’ve decided to use as much of this knowledge as possible to inform and improve current and future practice.

Since November 2018, representatives from our Records Management and Information Governance teams have been embarking on a programme to deliver information management training to staff across Children’s Services – from admin staff to practitioners to managers and service leads. Part of this training covers appropriate storage of files, what technically counts as a record, and (for practitioners) what information should be recorded – including how, where and when. The HCRP project team’s knowledge on historical issues in information recording has been invaluable to help identify potential gaps and to ensure we cover these.

Training is being delivered across the Council, to everyone involved in child social care recordkeeping.

This probably all sounds a bit dry, as information management is usually perceived to be… So we’ve done our best to try to make the training as much fun as possible. We get everyone involved and actively participating in tailored activities, including a game where you win a chocolate (of the mini variety) if you correctly match the document type to the appropriate storage location, a “what would you do?” exercise around a (fictitious) email being sent to the wrong (fictitious) person, and a handful of cartoon characters as case studies – for example, we’ve had Paddington Bear asking for his files (he was in foster care with the Brown family after all), and it turns out we found some (fictitious) files in a (fictitious) basement instead of the Funnybones skeletons (remember them?).

The feedback we’ve received from this training has been overwhelmingly positive, which is great to hear and shows that our aim of making it both fun and informative is working. Our main concern remains making sure we have an impact on the way things are done. We have seen some changes already, particularly around secure handling of information, so we seem to be on the right track. It does look like it might be quite a long road, especially since the goalposts shift slightly when new information comes to light, for example we’d now like to tie in the recommendations from the MIRRA project and help the council adopt that child-centred way of recording information. It may take some time to get these changes planned, approved, understood and embedded, as significant changes tend to, but as long as we’re moving forward, we’ll still be making progress and improving things as much as we can. Sometimes small steps are all that you can take, but as long as we keep our eyes fixed on the end goal we’ll get there in the end!

More information about Gloucestershire’s Historical Children’s Records Project is included in our downloadable best practice case study leaflet.  Later this year MIRRA will release a set of Principles for Caring Recordkeeping and a toolkit to support organisations to meet them. 

Weaving together all our stories

VictoriaHoyle5 September 2019

I’ve spent the last few weeks working on research articles and other writing projects.  As MIRRA nears the end of this research phase 90% of my to-do list involves long hours spent synthesising our findings and key messages, producing reports and putting together guidance documents. It can be draining work. So I was happy to see an exciting distraction in my inbox this morning: an email from Tabitha Millett, the artist who came to our Symposium in July, sending a batch of photographs from the day.

I should backtrack and explain.  Many months ago when we first started to discuss the research Symposium we decided we wanted to have some sort of creative element.  We wanted to have some way for people to capture and share their personal experiences of child social care records, whether they were care-experienced, a social worker or an information manager.  We settled on the idea of working with an artist, who would collaborate with symposium attendees to produce a piece of art during the breaks and lunchtime.  Having secured some funding from UCL Impact and Engagement (thank you!) we found Tabitha, an artist with experience of doing this kind of work in conference settings and with diverse communities.

She suggested we create a textile piece that soon became known as The Plait. The concept was to invite everyone attending the conference to bring a small item or piece of fabric that resonated with their experiences of social care records. They could then stitch this on to one of three strips of felt fabric.  Whatever they brought had to be something they were willing to leave behind, to become part of the final piece, so it could be symbolic rather than original if they preferred.  For people who didn’t bring anything along, we supplied a lucky dip bag of fabric scraps that could be personalised. We also had fabric pens that could be used to annotate pieces, or to draw directly onto the base fabrics.

Symposium attendees working on The Plait

The backing fabrics were white, grey and black, to symbolise the record itself: the white paper, the grey text and the black redactions that people often receive.  By writing and stitching feelings, opinions and experiences onto the fabric the aim was to capture everyone’s stories, and reflect on the value and meaning of records.

Some of the individual contributions were incredibly moving and powerful.  One person attached the pink legal tape that had bound up their social care file, while another attached a bear key ring to symbolise the teddy bear that they had not been able to take with them into foster care.

‘Don’t take their special things away’: Contributions to The Plait

“These ribbons tied up my life”: Contributions to The Plait

Attendees also reflected on resilience and how past experiences had helped to make them who they are today. Others took the opportunity to ask practitioners and others to remember the power that records have in people’s lives.

“I am more than a piece of paper in a filing cabinet drawer”: Contributions to The Plait.

“I am today the sum of everything that has happened to me…Please do not erase any part of me” Contributions to The Plait

At the end of the day the strands of The Plait were laid out for all to see, and then during the final session, while people shared stories about what they had contributed with the rest of the audience, it was plaited together into a braid.  As the braid formed some people’s contributions were hidden inside, while others peeped out of the weave. It was a reminder of how all of our stories are woven together, but whereas some are visible, others are hidden. But even hidden they are still there, still vital and important, still sharing the same space.

The Plait laid out ready for braiding

The braided Plait, at the front of the auditorium during closing remarks

As well as giving us lots to think about and talk about on the day, The Plait is also a lasting tangible reminder of the themes of MIRRA and of the importance of the research. The idea is that it can be unwound and added to at future events, and can be displayed to tell people’s stories. If you are interested to have The Plait at your event, to add to or display it, let us know.