A childhood on paper: managing access to child care files by post-care adults.

Author:Goddard, Jim


For people who have spent part or all of their childhoods in care, access to information about family history and events that have happened during their childhood can offer significant benefits. It can provide a chronological history, explain the reasons for coming into care and help to build a fuller sense of the enquirer's current identity. While the principle of providing such information has long been recognised, those formerly in care have faced numerous challenges in gaining access to their records.

Post-care adults occupy a marginalised position in the domains of policy and practice. On the one hand, the figure of the 'care leaver' has been discursively constructed as a young adult. While this is understandable in terms of the well-known risks for young adults in relation to such areas as education, employment and housing (Social Exclusion Unit, 1998a, 1998b, 1999; Fawcett et al, 2004, Chapter 5), it serves to render post-care adults 'invisible' once they move beyond their early to mid-twenties. They can also be seen as marginalised when compared with adopted adults, for whom there is a stronger legal framework and service infrastructure supporting their access to information. In this article, we report the findings from a survey of local authorities and major voluntary agencies in the UK, designed to examine their handling of requests for information from adults formerly in their care (Goddard et al, 2005). The survey contributes to what is currently a limited knowledge base in this area and to the development of future policy and practice. A further reason for the survey was to assess the impact of the Data Protection Act (DPA) 1998. This legislation has brought new rights for those seeking to access care records but has also given rise to new tensions surrounding the ownership of this information (Information Commissioner's Office, 2001).


Since the 1970s, there has been much greater awareness among policy makers and professionals of the need for children in care to have information about their family background and past history. Reflecting Jolowicz's (1973) concept of the 'hidden parent', it was increasingly accepted that--for reasons of self-esteem and to meet identity needs--children needed both background knowledge of their family and circumstances and, where possible, contact with their birth family (Thorpe, 1974; Fanshel and Shinn, 1978; Millham et al, 1986). One obvious manifestation of this view has been the expectation that children in care should have their own life story books (eg Ryan and Walker, 2007). This change in awareness can also be detected in the rise of 'open adoption', which comprises a continuum from increased availability and exchange of information about birth family members through to continued face-to-face contact (Mullender, 1990; Ryburn, 1994; Smith and Logan, 2004).

A written history of one's childhood is a rare event for most children as their lives are more often captured in the collective oral history of other family members, in photograph albums and in other memorabilia. Care leavers are much less likely to have such structured identity reinforcement as they journey into adult life. However, their written histories are a reservoir of highly personal information that can be drawn upon later in life. As the then Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) has argued:

Few of us depend upon official records for our identity or history. We may throw away old papers about ourselves but that is our choice. Unlike children who have been in public care we do not depend on the often fragmented and formal records of others. Yet, for many adults, such information can be critical in fully understanding the past ... Sadly, previous retention requirements have not always recognised this aspect. (Association of Directors of Social Services, 2000, p 1)

While child care files invariably contain highly personal information, they are also bureaucratic instruments that are designed to fulfil certain statutory and professional obligations. Such files may typically contain the following:

* statutory documentation, such as six-monthly review forms;

* informal and regular case notes;

* case correspondence, eg with parents or between professionals;

* routine administrative information, such as payment recordings;

* reports from schools, psychologists and other professionals.

Crucially, however, the narrative is an organisational and professional one rather than one that is constructed to meet the needs of post-care adults. Moreover, the quality of recording may vary, particularly with files written prior to the modern emphasis on sharing, openness and professional standards in recording (Prince, 1996; O'Rourke, 2002; O'Rourke and Grant, 2005).

Care and adoption

It is over a quarter of a century since Rowe (1980) noted the relative neglect of identity issues for those growing up in (foster) care in comparison with adopted adults, despite their often similar experiences and information needs. Yet this situation persists. For example, explicit provision has been made governing access to adoption records (Adoption Agency Regulations 1983 and associated government guidance) so that, despite the fact that adoption records are exempt from the subject access provisions of the DPA, adoption agencies are encouraged to exercise their discretion under the regulations to provide information for adopted adults from the records they hold. Additionally, there are established services, provided by local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and self-help groups, that offer information, counselling, advice, support and intermediary services for adopted people and for their adoptive and birth families (Smith, 2005).

The contrast also applies to official data and research evidence. In the case of adoption, there are detailed figures for both adoption itself and the number of adopted people requesting their birth records from the Registrar General (although this figure is an underestimate of all those gaining access to records) (Rushbrooke, 2001). There are no comparable official figures for those formerly in care. Previous research findings from a large voluntary organisation have suggested that the number of post-care adults requesting access to care records is relatively small in comparison with adopted adults (Kirton et al, 2001). However, this may be in part a reflection of different levels of awareness and publicity, as evidenced by the upsurge of interest following the BBC's screening of Barnardo's Children in 1995 (Pugh, 1999). Relative neglect can also be seen in the research domain, where post-care adults' access to records and associated issues, such as search and reunion, have received markedly less attention than is the case for adopted adults (Pugh, 1999; Howe and Feast, 2000; Feast and Philpot, 2003).

Why access? The voices of postcare adults

We know relatively little about the experiences of post-care adults going through the process of accessing care records. Pugh's (1999) small-scale study of 12 adults accessing files held by Barnardo's identified a number of themes to their searches:

* the meaning and significance of roots, primarily blood ties;

* the need to know, basic curiosity about one's past;

* the need to create a coherent self-image;

* the intensity of emotion involved in this process.

Kirton and colleagues (2001) additionally highlighted help with tracing birth relatives or significant others, locating medical information and effecting reunions as further motivating factors for files access.

Identity issues figure prominently in the leaving care literature (Stein and Carey, 1986; Wheal, 2002; Winter and Cohen, 2005). Biehal et al, for example, contend that, for care leavers, reaching into the past can be important in the construction of a 'coherent narrative of their lives that can connect past and present' (1995, p 106). This motive is a strong feature of autobiographical literature written by post-care adults (Fever, 1994; Frampton, 2004; Oldfield, 2004; Gaskin, 2005). The results of revisiting the care experience can be varied. For example, although some access requests are concerned with a legacy of historic abuse, others have been linked to unexpected reconciliations with previously unknown siblings. More generally, files access has often proved to be cathartic. Perhaps the most evocative recent account in this vein is that provided by Paolo Hewitt, a music journalist and author, who describes the powerful impact of reading his files:

I began to read and re-read the story of my life. It was an amazing experience. In those files, you see and hear people talking about your character, your appearance, your demeanour. You see how others view you. Your reactions to events are recorded and so is your world view. Not only is your early life set down forever but also chronicled are the memories that will never fade and the ones that already have. I think it is the closest you can get to attending your own funeral, which makes it a one-off experience, one of the few perks of being a looked after kid. (Hewitt, 2002, pp 204-5)

The Data Protection Act 1998

The DPA came fully into effect in 2001, building upon and replacing the Access to Personal Files Act 1987. The 1998 Act has two broad purposes: (1) to protect the right of individuals to privacy; and (2) to ensure that individuals have access to personal information held about them and can correct it. The emphasis on 'protection' has a number of implications for post-care adults. For example, there are restrictions on accessing information regarding other family members, who are treated as 'third parties' under the Act (see below). However, the DPA did strengthen rights to information in certain respects, including extending access from 'structured' files only to all personal information held on file. While voluntary organisations are not formally bound by the DPA in respect of access to...

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