The importance of access to one’s own records is increasingly being recognised as significant, and data protection legislation in many jurisdictions has aimed to enshrine this as a right in law. Care experienced people have repeatedly stated that their childhood memories are often fragmented or unclear, and that access to their records can be a significant factor in redressing this. However, in practice significant barriers still remain.
In the UK the Data Protection Act 1998 and its 2018 successor have proved a crude instrument. The process of accessing records under this system is to make a Subject Access Request (SAR). Objections have been made to the language used here; people have found it alienating to be referred to as a ‘Data Subject’. The act means that you only have a right to access records where you are the Data Subject and other people mentioned in the records have their data? protected by the law. This can create ambiguity for those governing access about what should and should not be disclosed. Are you the subject of a Social Worker’s report on your childhood family home, or are your parents/guardians the subject, and what if other family members are named? Approaches to these questions are uneven across local authorities and other record holding organisations, but with talk of fines for data breaches ringing in their ears there is a definite tendency for staff to err on the side of caution and walls of redacted, blacked out text are a common experience.
The bureaucratic language of Data Subjects and SARs often mirrors a mechanistic and uncaring approach to managing access to records. This language can sometimes seep into correspondence with care experienced people requesting their files; I’ve heard people say that they have been preferred referred to as subjects in letters and emails from local authorities. Records are often received out of order with no explanatory documents or support to interpret or understand them. In Australia (see especially 38:55-43.25) it is increasingly common for best practice to be to consult with the requester as to how they would like to receive their records, for them to be ordered chronologically and for a glossary of terms or similar document to also be included. The Australian Society of Archivists has also sought to spread best practice through training courses and events on the Trauma Informed Approach to Archives and Out of Home Care records, although a lack of funding has meant that the price of these resources remains a barrier. Here at the Mulberry Bush we have a system whereby former pupils are directed to a figure in the charity they may have known through their time at the school, rather than dealing directly with strangers at the archive. We also provide advice on our website about the process of accessing your files and the strong feelings this may bring up, which forms part of our trauma informed approach. That said, we are always looking to improve and welcome feedback from anyone who has attempted to access their files via the Mulberry Bush.
Record creation and management processes can also pose a problem. While seeing abuse described in records can be re-traumatising, their absence from official records can be worse. Records can be lost or destroyed, or may even not have been made in the first place. Such absences can be re-traumatising. In Scotland the Public Records Scotland Act (PRSA) forces named public authorities to agree record retention policies with the Keeper of the Records of Scotland. Importantly, the PRSA also applies to third sector organisations acting on behalf of the state or a local authority, including charities running children’s homes or schools. It is hoped that this will allow for fuller, or at least more standardised, records being available for future generations, however, as the PRSA was only passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2011, it is probably too soon to say whether it will have the desired effect.
Legislation like the PRSA will not guarantee that records which will be useful to the people they are about (?) document will be created. These are documents created primarily to be of use to the professionals that created them and the bodies that managed them. Prior to the introduction of Freedom of Information and Data Legislation little if any thought was given to the potential of such documents to may have a second life as evidence, or even a narrative, of a childhood. That they can play such a role remains under-appreciated by front line workers. Derogatory language about children and their guardians is common as a result, especially in older records, which has the potential to re-traumatise. Who Cares? Scotland a charity and advocacy group for care experienced people, have run a Records Access Campaign which included workshops with archivists, records managers and frontline practitioners to improve access to records and to promote mindfulness about how information is recorded.
Much work remains to be done then, before records access can fulfil its potential as a way to rebuild shattered childhood narratives. There are elements of best practice that can be drawn upon from diverse sources but implementing them will require both a culture shift within both records creating and records managing professions as well as resources being made. This has been challenging during over a decade of austerity, and the current cost of living crisis is set to worsen the situation further. Where progress has been made, most notably in Canada and Australia, it has been through wider campaigns for justice, specifically regarding the appalling treatment of indigenous children in the Canadian Residential School system, and Australia’s continuing reckoning with its genocidal origins. What we can do in Britain then is potentially tie care experienced people’s struggles with access requests to campaigns to open up the illegally migrated colonial files retained by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at Hanslope Park, near Milton Keynes as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, as the ongoing crisis in care intensifies, we should make the case that records access can play a role in healing past trauma.