Being removed from your family as a child and taken into the care of the state is inconceivable for many of us. Often the context is traumatic and, in 99% of cases, this intervention has nothing to do with the child’s behaviour. Yet the evidence reveals that down the line, when that child becomes an adult and seeks information about their family background and time in care, they experience a battle with a care-less process. Later this month the Access to Care Records Campaign Group (ACRCG) will hold an event in the House of Lords, with the aim of re-igniting action to address the legislative, policy and practice issues.
Back in 2014 the Parliamentarian lead of the ACRCG, Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey tabled an amendment in the House of Lords during the passage of the Children and Families Bill. The Government responded with an undertaking to review the statutory guidance once the Bill was enacted, rather than amend the law.
Whilst there has been engagement from some government departments, with the Department for Education endorsing a series of National roundtable discussions in 2015. The campaign group maintains that the current legal framework for accessing care files is not suitable to meet the emotional needs of adult care leavers. It fails both in relation to dealing with requests for case records information and by not considering the emotional needs of the individual in terms of support throughout the process.
Gathering the reflections from the roundtables, the ACRCG published ‘It’s My Journey: It’s My Life’ in 2015, setting out their observations of practice across England and their recommendations to improve current practice. The picture did not look good, adult care leavers were too often failed and not enough was being done to address this.
In 2016 I was approached by the CLA to support a piece of research that would further enable the voices of care leavers to be heard again, those who had approached the CLA over recent years for support in accessing records of their time in care. They were particularly interested in hearing in anything was changing, and ensuring the voice of older care leavers and those who are often hidden or marginalised from the debate due to criminalisation, imprisonment, homelessness or other life experiences. With my colleague Karen Kent, we spoke to and reflected on the experiences of twenty individuals. Over three quarters were over 40 years old, and they were an almost equal mix of men and women. One quarter had experienced some time in prison during their lives since leaving care.
Battling with a care-less process…
Our findings, published in late 2017, are captured in the report ‘Battling with a Care-less Process’. What we found was deeply saddening. The reflections reveal how experiences of powerlessness, unforgotten from childhood, are reproduced for adults who are legitimately seeking answers.
‘The late 1970’ and 1980’s when these records were written, the derogatory language used about my behaviour, being for attention. I was hurt and disgusted by what they had said about me and my family. There was nothing down about how they treated me.’ (Female, late 40’s)
For many of those we spoke with the harsh realities of early years before or in care had, coping with bereavement or abuse, had then been followed by an overwhelming sense of isolation, relationship breakdowns, and in some cases periods of homelessness, poor mental health, addiction or criminalisation. By adulthood, those formative experiences in care are returned to, unanswered questions regarding decisions made or direct emotional harms of racism or abuse, become increasingly central to the individuals sense of identity and power (or lack of it). Some reflect returning in their 40’s to the process of accessing records, age acting as a trigger for seeking answers, and persevering with the process. Yet all those we spoke to ‘had no idea it was a legal right’, finding out often by accident through word of mouth. Of the twenty, thirteen individuals receive something back for their efforts. In reality though this meant receiving pieces of a puzzle, a partial and fragmented set of documents, arriving with little care and no offer of support.
‘I didn’t get any support nor anyone to explain the reasons for redactions, I did get the third party bit but I feel it was unprofessional the way it was done, almost like it had been skipped through and rushed, so not done properly. Names redacted in one place then left in another.’ (Male, mid 40’s)
‘I didn’t think I would get them to be honest it took so long, but one morning months later I got three big files through the post with no warning.’ (Female, late 40’s)
‘It took seven months to get them to send it and it got brought straight to my cell, and no one offered to read it with me or support me with the content.’ (Male, mid 20’s)
Once again, the overwhelming feeling reflected is of isolation – battling this process alone, the lack of support is dismaying. The responsibility the state took as corporate parent has, by this stage in their life, clearly been abandoned. This is especially the case for those whose life may have taken them to hidden and marginalised spaces in society such as a prison cell or living on the streets.
Was it worth it? For some, yes, there are individuals who feel they are able to confront or address past ghosts, a vindication of their sense of self or able to challenge a long standing sense of power over them – ‘the power to construct me’. Too often though these moments are fleeting and the wider experience for all those we spoke to is of a reproduction of past injustice and powerlessness.
‘I wouldn’t go through that experience again, even if I am left with questions.’ (Male, mid 30’s)
‘This was the most important thing in the world to me, but now I have been through all that to get information that was no use, I think it is just too hard.’ (Female, early 40’s)
I wanted help to get answers to end a nightmare but I was up against the same arrogance and attitude I received from the social worker that took me to Woodend at 12. I am 51 now, damaged.’ (Male, early 50’s)
Time for action…
That those we spoke with had approached the CLA, or been contacted via outreach work done by the organisation in prisons, may mean they are more likely to represent those who have a poor experience of this process. Yet much of what we found has been heard before. Stretching over almost two decades – from Pugh and Schofield’s small scale study in 1999, through the work of Jim Goddard and colleagues in 2005 and 2008, and most recently Zoe Duncalf (2010) and Darren Coyne (2015) – the consistencies in the experiences and associated feelings related to the process of accessing records reveals that little has changed.
Change is possible, however. This situation can be improved. By raising public consciousness about this issue, advocating for investment and funding, and enabling changes to legislation that can facilitate accountability.
The ACRCG, with strong representation from user-led groups, continue to lobby for changes in law and for tailored support service for care leavers. The event on the 27th November at the House of Lords is a call for action from those with the power to support change.
Becky Clarke is a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University