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.