From Coalface to Facebook? A CCHN Conference report

Under the title From Coalface to Facebook? – using the new social media and technology to record, remember and share child care experience, the Child Care History Network received a fascinating range of contributions at a recent conference.

Posing the Questions

Charles Sharpe introduced the theme. He pointed out that the opportunities provided by new technology were challenging long-held values, and there was a risk of things spiralling out of control. Up to now the means of recording the histories of children in care had all been in the hands of adults, but new means of communication such as Twitter, Skype and Facebook had given children and young people the chance to communicate and to record events. They could now tell their stories as they wanted them to be told. They could put themselves forward as celebrities, known around the world, with hundreds of ‘friends’.

Not all children have access to new technology, and there is a divide between the haves and the have-nots, and between the opportunities which they have to communicate.

Charles pointed out that there was the danger of having, and sharing, too much information. The new media could also be destructive. They could change the nature of families; the older generations did not necessarily hold the knowledge and power any longer. Everyone could now be an active participant, and not just a passive recipient or listener to the wisdom of others.

There was the danger also that electronic social networking did not have the behavioural constraints built up over generations in other types of relationship, as bullying via Facebook or mobile phones had shown. When on the computer children are more solitary and less well protected. Internet relationships may also have an air of unreality about them, with participants putting forward the image they want to project.

The European Court of Justice had ruled that a child’s file was to be seen as the equivalent of his/her family memory. There was a danger that, in order to avoid being put at risk, social workers and other workers responsible for recording would defensively avoid problems by producing minimalist, bland, dead records. Charles argued that professionals should be trained to create narratives for looked after children.

He closed his introduction with questions. Are privacy and confidentiality things of the past? Are child care staff resistant to making full use of new technology? Are they right to be resistant? What will be lost in switching from written records and letters to the new forms of electronic communication? Where will we be by 2020?

How New Technology has Developed

John Moorhouse gave an expert overview of the ways in which new technology had developed over the last two decades. He noted that people were quite reasonably afraid of the scope of new technology, as they did not understand it and feared that it might be beyond their control.

Over recent years one technological development after another had been introduced.

At first web pages were static, but they had now become dynamic, with the separation of the text and the background. Systems now permitted greater control, such as colour changes. Users could now modify content on the web.

Blogs and social networking sites enabled everyone to participate and contribute comments on collaborative websites. Wikipedia had started as a website about weaving, and it now had three million entries. The question was posed: who owns the information?

John went on to discuss other systems where users were not controlled by servers. Using cloud computing information might be anywhere. Peer-to-peer contacts did not involve servers, such as mobile phones, Skype, email, iPlayer and SETI, using spare power.

He argued that electronic social networking mirrored traditional forms of social interaction. The electronic systems had developed from simple inexpensive geosite models to Friends Re-united in contact by email, and then to Facebook, Bebo and Myspace, which included profiles, blogs, photo galleries, instant messaging, fan clubs, geolocation, multimedia galleries, discussion forums, rakings, polls and much more. There was now scope for varying audiences for messages – individuals, friends, families, registered users or the whole internet. There was also the chance for professional networking offline.

The pace of development had been astounding; it remains to be seen whether it will continue, or whether this area of technology has now been thoroughly exploited.

A New Sort of Life Story Book

Simon Hammond from the University of East Anglia spoke about a research project in which new technology is used to create a new style of life story book for children looked after by local authorities. He started by acknowledging the concerns there were about the vulnerability of children in relation to new technology, and the fear that technology might take over.

However, in terms of the basic needs of children being looked after by local authorities, there were ways in which new technology could be of help. Some young people did not have basic family information, for example about their parents, and this could be provided privately and directly by phone.

Simon had focused on life story work, trying to see it from the perspective of the young people. The built environment was an important part of their memories, and so Simon accompanied young people round their home areas, filming the streets where they had lived and played, their schools, their children’s homes and so on. They were encouraged to speak on camera about the things that mattered to them and that they wanted to record. They used webcams, camera phones, blogs, pictures and clips.

Out of this, the life stories which emerged as the young people talked through their experiences became more coherent. Simon worked in several children’s homes over a period of nine months, and each life story book went through a process of planning, filming, editing, production and then a premier.

What was the impact of the project? It produced information which would otherwise have been concealed. The children could not get enough of the new technology. The staff were underconfident with the new technology but favoured the podcasting. The general atmosphere in the homes was also affected. For example, the process enabled a boy with Tourette’s to communicate, and he calmed down.

The research project was, however, only a starting point, but the use of new technology with all its risks and potential is here to stay. “It’s a way of life, isn’t it?”

The Views of the Subjects of Child Care Records

Dr Jim Goddard of the Care Leavers’ Association spoke from the perspective of people who had used the services. The CLA had 300 members from an estimated 350,000 people who had been through the care system in the UK. Members had a variety of concerns, such as access to their files, dealing with the stigma of having been in care, and having no family (or a dysfunctional family) to turn to.

Very often on leaving care, young people make a break with their foster carers or children’s homes, but later they may want to check out their past and make contact. Leaving care is rather like leaving siblings behind. Very few care leavers have much by way of oral family history or photographs of their families.

There is also Care Leavers Re-united, set up in 2002 and run by the CLA since 2003. It has 5510 people on its books, of whom about 90% are people formerly in care and 10% are care staff, foster carers or relatives of people who were in care.

Jim noted a number of issues they faced. Not everyone wants to make contact; some want to leave their care experiences behind a closed door. Some need support, which CLA tries to offer. Strikingly, less than 0.1% of the contacts make allegations of abuse.

Mapping Children’s Homes

Gudrun Limbrick described the recently completed project in Birmingham in which all the 150+ children’s homes in use between 1949 and 1990 were recorded. Two staff worked on the project, and when it began in 2000 the internet was not considered, but recently it had attracted a lot of participants, and 65% of the contacts had been made that way.

The project is due to close shortly, and the next stage is not clear, as so much is changing. There were still difficulties with privacy laws. For example, many children’s homes (especially the smaller ones) were known by street and number, and where these had been sold to private owners it was felt inappropriate to publicise the addresses. It was not felt possible to share photographs where they included people who had not given permission. Birmingham was planning to go paperless, but this was not acceptable to the Courts.

A Contentious Subject

Finally Mark X, Dr Craig Fees and Gemma Geldart spoke of the PETT-based research project designed to gather memories of therapeutic care, and Bodenham Manor was selected as the example. The project had held ‘archive weekends’, to which former staff and former pupils were invited to share and record their memories. Craig said that an archive is a holding place for memories, and that gaps in memories diminish people. For more information about the project see the website Therapeutic Living with Other People’s Children, which contains an internal Facebook.

Mark X spoke of his two periods at Bodenham Manor. He mentioned the nasty regime and the bullying he experienced. Yet he got to know the other boys and they became his family. And the school became his home.

The day ended with some impassioned discussion, as Mark X argued forcefully that he felt he had a right to see the Bodenham archives. It had been his home and the school community had been his family, and as such he argued that he should not be denied access by archivists whose interests were professional and who had not been in the ‘family’. He had assisted in safeguarding the Bodenham archives but now felt powerless to see what he wanted to see.

Craig Fees pointed out that under privacy laws people could see what related to themselves but not the documents and pictures relating to other people. Whether this should be the case was clearly a matter for debate, and possibly action by CCHN.

And in Conclusion

Finally a halt had to be called as the conference overran its time. As with other CCHN conferences there was a fascinating mixture of participants. Sadly there were fewer attending than usual, and greater attention must be paid to advertising future events. The quality of inputs and debate merited a larger group.

In summarising, Richard Rollinson pointed out that in 1465 Gutenberg produced the first printed book in western Europe, and in the following 75 years more books were printed than had been produced in the whole of previous history. The electronic age of communication is delivering a similar explosion of communication, but involving almost the whole of the population. He concluded that we need to get involved, maximise the positives and minimise the negative impacts.

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