There was a time, back in the 1950s and 1960s, when child care records were pretty thin. There were exceptions, but in general, records were limited to practical matters, such as the delivery of blankets to foster parents.
Then there came the introduction of process recording, and case records in general were much fuller, recounting who said what to whom and what it might signify. Some records were perhaps too detailed, but by and large they gave a real picture of the child and the family, the hopes and plans, and the social worker’s relationship with the child. They usually did not contain a lot about what the child thought.
During the 1970s and 1980s, these records were useful to enable the social worker to be accountable at supervision sessions, they recorded the information needed by colleagues in the social worker’s absence, and taken together they offer the whole sweep of the period while Social Services were involved – maybe two decades and more than one generation.
There were authorities where records were badly kept, or where there were no more than quarterly summaries, but in general they were laboriously written out in long-hand or passed to typists to create a more legible version.
Since the 1989 Act records have been more formalised, with boxes to be filled in covering all sorts of detail, sometimes repetitiously. The amount of paper and bureaucracy has increased considerably; the quantity of facts recorded has grown. Children’s views are recorded much more fully. There is no question but that most social workers fill the forms in conscientiously.
But it is questionable whether the records tell the child’s story. Accumulating facts does not provide the thread of meaning. However good your copper cable, it produces no spark until the electricity goes through it. The records of the 1990s and 2000s do not give as good a picture of what the children are like, or how the social worker relates to them. If children’s needs are to be met, we need to know their story, how they themselves view their predicament. How otherwise do we help them to achieve a better understanding? We need the records to be freed up from the tyranny of the boxes, so that social workers can record the case as they see it and focus on what matters. And their account needs to make sense of the situation – the child, the family, the context, so that a realistic way ahead can be planned and, hopefully, agreed by those involved.
This is a sweeping summary of the records of the last sixty years, and there will no doubt be lots of exceptions to it, but if it contains a grain of truth we need to review the way we record.