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MIRRA: Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access

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Creating Memory Boxes: A Social Worker’s Perspective

Victoria Hoyle15 November 2018

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.

Buckingham Palace, London. Photo by Debbie Fan on Unsplash

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 of my memory box filing system

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.

Introducing the MIRRA project

Victoria Hoyle12 June 2018

Personal records, photographs and family stories help people to remember significant events and milestones from childhood: where you went on holiday when you were 7, what part you had in your first school play or when you lost your first tooth.  But if you grew up in care these things may be missing or inaccessible.  Not only that but you might have a particularly complex personal story, involving lots of foster or residential placements and people coming into your life for brief periods.  As a result care leavers often have significant gaps in their stories and unanswered questions about their lives.  In the absence of family archives they turn to records held by the local authorities and charities that looked after them.  These organisational records are their personal histories, helping to create and reconstruct narratives about the past.

Photographs like this help us to remember our childhood.

Since the 19th century vast quantities of information about children and families has been collected as part of social work activity.  These files look different depending on when and where you were in care. They may have been produced by lots of people, including social workers, teachers, family, foster carers, residential care workers, health services and the police. In some cases files can run to 1000s of pages. Some may include highly personal things like photographs, letters and school reports while others are official, repetitive and full of jargon. Either way this ‘paper self’ is hugely important, both for how children and young people are understood and treated while they’re in care, and for how they understand and treat themselves later in life.

Charities and local authorities in England hold files on hundreds of thousands of people who have been in care.

Asking to see your care file is a big decision that can take years to make and the process is often difficult. Some records have been destroyed and others are lost in confused records management systems. People can wait over a year to receive any information. Where records survive they may be fragmentary, contradictory and contrast sharply with a person’s existing memories.  Information about family or carers might be blacked out – ‘redacted’ – and documents sometimes leave out the important emotional details.  Photographs, school reports, swimming certificates and other personal documents only survive in about 10-20% of cases. In other words care records often conceal or obscure as much as they reveal.  Care-experienced people report feelings of powerlessness, frustration, anger and trauma in trying to recover their childhoods from their files.  This isn’t the whole story – lots of people find positive things in their records too – but it’s definitely a recurring theme.

The Access to Records Campaign Group (a collaboration of voluntary organisations led by The Care Leavers Association) have been making the case for better support and resources for access to records for the last decade. Their 2016 report It’s My Journey, It’s My Life drew on the experiences of care leavers and social care practitioners, and set out the practical, legal and emotional challenges that face people who access their records.  The arrival of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in May 2018 and the role of records in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has also highlighted the value and complexity of social care files.

MIRRA is a research project that aims to support the rights of care leavers by exploring how child social care records have been created, kept and used in public and voluntary organisations in England from the mid-20th century to the present day.  The acronym stands for Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access.  It is a participatory action research project co-produced with care leavers in partnership with the Care Leavers Association. Ultimately it aims to make positive changes to social care recordkeeping and through those changes improve the care leavers’ experiences.

On this blog we will be sharing our research journey.  We will talk in more depth about the project and what we are doing, featuring posts from the research team and from care leavers and others.  If you have something you would like to contribute, please do get in touch.