Can children, young people & their families ‘own’ their records?
“Those that do not have the power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, reconstruct it, joke about it and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.” (Salman Rushdie)
I think as social workers we should question who ‘owns’ a child’s record. It is my belief that the child owns it, it is theirs, and yet so often they see very little of it. It can seem like reports, assessments and plans are written for managers, professionals and the courts. This becomes painfully obvious when we hear stories of care experienced adults who return to read their “files” later in life to find their story and the ‘soul’ of their experience as they know it missing from the words written about them. Too often, children’s files simply disappear, as painfully highlighted by the experiences of Lemn Sissay, and by Prof Alexandra Jay in the Rochdale child sex abuse report, both stark examples of what Sissay calls ‘disappearing files abuse’.
Before the lockdown, I was given the opportunity to work on a project for my organisation on how we could improve our record keeping and our families access to what is written about them. The MIRRA (Memory – Identity – Rights in Record – Access) project was one of the sources of inspiration for my work on this subject and tells the stories of care experienced adults accessing their files. They are powerful messages and I encourage anyone who writes records for families to watch some of the videos available online.
One of the aims of this project was to throw light on the responsibilities and power we have as professionals, and why we must critically analyse how we write about children and families. Fergus Hogan’s 2001 article, Letter Writing and Collaborative Note Making in Social Work Practice, also served as inspiration in my own journey to discover whether writing letters to families and having these serve as the case record would assist in making files more accessible to families. The project threw up a number of key questions: How can families be empowered to share the “Record Keeping” space? How can young people write their own stories of their time in care? How can we help children in care make memories they’ll want to access when they’re older? Can record keeping be a therapeutic intervention in and of itself?
Relevance to Covid-19
The current crisis has brought about new ways of working: we are using text, email, social media and other virtual methods of staying in touch with the families we support. These media present opportunities to use this material to record the child’s world, in the child’s voice, on their files for their future reference. With this project I was already thinking about how we could add voice recordings and videos to the files of children in care so that they have real, tangible records of their own voices and images, as well as those of their social workers, important professionals, carers and family members, for them to access in adulthood. Due to social distancing measures, a lot of family time (contact) between children and birth family is now done virtually, often with the capability of recording through whatever platform is being used. This presents a potential opportunity to record messages and meetings virtually between family for these children to view in the future.
Another key question was: What are we currently doing? In the fast paced and stressful environment of child protection social work, how often do families see copies of what is written about them, whether that be social work assessments, family plans, child protection plans or records of meetings? Can we be confident that we are doing this all the time? Another question that kept cropping up was, who are social workers writing for? And are we constantly writing as if the child or young person is looking over our shoulder? In my discussions with social workers I found they often forgot about two things: that a family can request to see everything that’s been written about them at any time, and that they aren’t writing for themselves, but are writing the story of someone’s life.
Consider this: Have you ever attended your GP practice to discuss something personal and as you’re talking about an intimate subject they are typing on the computer without eye contact? Did you ever get to see what they’d written? How does that make you feel?
In 2018, the Transparency Project looked at why parents might want to record meetings with social workers. This shed light on the power imbalance involved when social workers write records without the input of the people concerned and how these could be addressed by doing this collaboratively with clients. The project found, among other things, that parents record workers because they don’t want to forget things, don’t want to rely on other people’s recordings of a meeting and because they have previously disagreed with minutes of meetings.
Ethical Dilemmas in Record Keeping – Nothing about me, without me
How can a family know what we expect of them and what we think we are trying to help with, if they never see our thought process, our ‘working out’? How can they agree to what we are trying to achieve if they aren’t part of writing the plan in clear, understandable language with no jargon/acronyms/professional speak? How can we work within the principles of empowerment, equality and dignity if we are writing things about people, without them, and never giving them access?
I think a key factor in getting this right for families is empowering them to choose how they want to interact with their records. Do they want to read them, or comment on them, or are they in a position to assist in writing them? Would they prefer this to be done via phone calls, emails, letters, texts or in another format? Some young people may engage with being recorded and this being placed on their file for the future, and others may not. I think they key here is that we have a number of different approaches and we work with people to record their stories in the best way for them.
What is collaborative case recording and how is it different?
A lot of case recording, especially in busy fast-paced environments, tends to be done after the fact, back at the office and without the person with whom its about. Collaborative case recording is about the worker and the client spending time together agreeing on what has been said and discussed, and jointly recording this on the persons file. Miller & Barrie (2019) suggest that narrative approaches where stories are constructed with and about the client, could be beneficial as clients are able to reflect on and contribute to their own plan.
Shires (2016) suggests that the standards for client-centred recording should be accountability, appropriate language, therapeutic, social inclusive, accessible and confidential. He suggests that co-constructed (collaborative) records include both the client and worker regularly reviewing them, which ensures accuracy and clarity, and maintains a level of transparency. He also suggests that this way of recording “upholds the dignity and rights of the people” that we work with.
The figure below shows how collaborative case recording (with) differs from the professionally-controlled approach (to) and where letter writing sits within the wider approach. This is a table that I created whilst thinking about the different levels of sharing records with families whilst preparing to deliver training in my authority.
The key benefits of letter writing within a collaborative case recording approach are:
- The records become produced by families, allowing them to participate in, and own what is written about them
- It allows them to write their own story, design their own goals and create their own path
- Families immediately have access to their own records, encourages the co-construction of meaningful conversations (Hogan 2001)
- Can be a key way of building trust and relationship, becoming part of therapeutic practice (MIRRA)
Why should we care about our clients having access to their records?
For those who are care experienced, having often lived through a myriad of changes and a childhood of trauma, their files are the only place where they can gain understanding and a picture of their childhood. It is well documented in a number of disciplines, including psychology and criminology, that trauma impacts our memories. The MIRRA project and their work talks extensively about how without our stories, our pictures, memories, sense of who we are, and where we come from, we struggle to have an identity. For those who have spent the majority of their childhood in local authority care, their files are often the one place, the only place, where these memories can be found. I believe that it would be so powerful for care experienced adults to be able to come back to their “files” and read words that they wrote, about their situation, at the time, rather than someone else’s interpretation of what happened that they’ve never seen before.
How can we take this forward?
There are already a number of technologies available which could support this work. For example, my nursery use TAPESTRY. Each child has an individual password-protected account where nursery staff and parents can share pictures and stories about the child’s experiences, learning and development. I envisage a similar platform that could be used to share pictures and stories to add to a child’s electronic co-produced file. We are also exploring the ‘Portal’ function within Liquid Logic. Within the Portal there is a way to give parents and families a log on to access a ‘shared’ area of the child’s file containing documents and information the young person and family could access via the internet.
What have practitioners said about it?
Whilst discussing with social workers in the authority where I work about how we can begin to take this approach forward I have encountered several worries. Practitioners sometimes worry this new approach could be time-consuming. My response is that this method replaces the old method rather than being an additional task. So instead of writing a case note, report or assessment AND a letter to a family, the letter IS the assessment/report/case note. I also believe that engaging families in writing their own reports, being more involved in what’s being recorded, and in writing their own goals this has potential positive impact further down the line because we are engaging and empowering families right from the beginning of any intervention, in keeping with Hoyle et al’s (2018) framing of collaborative record-keeping as a rights-based practice. Social workers have reported that they feel the weight of responsibility working in this way, knowing that the child and family are going to immediately read what they have written about them. This constant reminder that we are recording the story of children’s lives, that they may well read as adults, is surely a positive thing for those we support and practitioners should welcome that.
In this new, virtual world, we are moving from the idea of a physical memory box (most often a shoe box or similar containing a life story book and an old teddy or toy) to the idea of recorded messages in the child’s voice so that when they come to review their files as adults, it is their story, told in their words, in a way that they recognise.
Kay Everard, social work team leader (all views my own)
Shires, A. (2016). Client-centred, Co-constructed records – available at: www.innovativeresources.org.
Willis, R. & Holland, S. (2009) Life story work reflections on the experience by looked after young people, Adoption & Fostering 33(4), 44-52.
 See; how trauma and impact four types of memory( www.nicabm.com) How trauma affects the way in which we encode and store memories (www.lscft.nhs.uk), Traumatic stress: effects on the brain (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).