Access to records about their time in care has been identified as very important for care-leavers to support their rights and identity. In this blog, I set out some of the barriers and difficulties faced by care leavers in trying to access their records, as described by them in a workshop held in 2017. I then list some recommendations we developed together, discuss a suggested project which could make it easier for care leavers to locate records, and finally briefly suggest issues relating to recordkeeping that need to be considered by the Royal Commission.
This photo shows a few folders and some albums and boxes containing some of the many records – certificates, photos, paintings, reports and so on – our family has collected over the years as our two sons have grown. Sometimes it’s fun to look back through these folders and albums and reminisce about the good times we’ve had with friends and family. Because that’s what we choose to collect records about: celebrating friendships, family, and success; happy and positive times in our children’s lives. Most people in New Zealand grow up with our birth families, or perhaps with one adopted family. Although for everyone this is a different experience, not always sunshine and flowers, for most of us it means we have a sense of continuity, a shared memory we can look back on.
A recent study (see “Further Reading”) notes that “Growing up in a birth family setting often provides a rich store of collective memory and oft-repeated informal oral and documentary history that allows adults, throughout their life course, to develop a strong sense of who they are and were”. For people who were in care as children, however, particularly if they have been in multiple homes over the years, the experience can be something quite different.
I’ve been working as a professional archivist for more than 25 years now, but it’s only been in the last couple of years I’ve had my eyes opened to the impacts of recordkeeping decisions on people who have been in out of home care. What I’ve learnt raises a lot of questions for our current policies and practice. I believe the upcoming Royal Commission is an opportunity for some of these questions to be addressed.
In February last year I was the co-convenor of a workshop in Auckland. Participants included people who were in out-of-home care as children, particularly members of Care Leavers Australasia Network New Zealand (CLAN); archivists and records managers who manage records relating to people who were in care; legal representatives of those children, and academics with expertise in information and records management and human rights law.
The idea for the workshop arose in response to findings in Australia that problems with recordkeeping exacerbate trauma suffered by people in out of home care. Our discussions identified many similar problems to those identified in Australia, as well as issues specific to New Zealand. Many of the stories we heard from care leavers were very personal and upsetting. We all agreed to maintain anonymity and only share the information that people were happy to share. It was generous of the care leavers to share their stories, as every time they do they have to re-visit a traumatic part of their lives, so we are all hoping that they haven’t shared their stories in vain, and that we can work towards improving practice so that things improve for others in the future.
We did hear some good stories as well. We heard about the work that advocates are doing to help people who were in care find their records and pursue justice for abuse. We also heard how some archivists and archival institutions are doing all they can to make sure that records are maintained, and that people can find as many records as possible about their time in care, and about the institutions they were living in. Let’s hope we can build on those good stories.
However, I was shocked to hear many stories about all the different problems people who were in care have had with access to records. Many people who were in care as children have little or no documentary evidence of their childhood, and most of what was kept was negative. Instead of having certificates and photos of happy times, their records often detailed times they had been naughty, or failed at something, or contained negative stories about their parents. If children had been passed between caregivers, often no-one kept their reports for them, no-one kept photographs of holidays, the birthday parties, the school sports days – or the certificates they got in primary school for learning to write with a pen, or for participating in a talent quest.
Many care leavers have to turn to archives to find the documents that give even the most basic facts about their lives. For example, why were they in care? What country did their parents come from? What is their iwi? Have they been immunised? Did they have measles as a child? Did they have any siblings? What happened to them? People at the workshop said “who else has to go to the government for records about their own childhood?” And when they do go to look for the records, the experience is often not a good one: lots of withheld documents, redactions, impossible to even find most of them, being told they had been destroyed – even when sometimes they hadn’t. Some reported a lack of respect, a lack of support when they were finding out really distressing things, and having to contact an organisation that was responsible for them in a really hard time in their life, and all the associated memories that brought up.
Observations and key issues identified in the workshop
After listening to all of the participants at the workshop, we came up with a list of observations and issues.
Care leavers may find that the only personal records that exist of their childhood are held by government departments, who often choose to redact much (or most) of the personal information about the people they were surrounded by in childhood. They might not even be able to find the names of their siblings or the other children they were in care with, even though they would have known them well at the time. Sometimes they are given copies of photos with all of the faces blacked out except their own – even though information about their friends and family are exactly what they need. These records are central to their ability to develop and maintain a sense of identity, as well as to seek justice for harm done to them. Withholding a care leaver's childhood records is experienced as abuse or torture: "a beating that leaves no marks".
Often the information care leavers need was never recorded. Records were kept to serve the purpose of governmental bureaucracies. The records do not provide what the children need and want to know (for example, family history, educational achievements, photographs, medical history...). For Māori children adopted through the state in the past, the tribal affiliation was generally not recorded, meaning they were cast adrift in the Māori world - their tribal identity lost, they could not be “placed”.
Recorded information is often misleading, inaccurate, and incomplete. Sometimes libelous statements are made about the child, birth parents or siblings. Often many or most records have disappeared. Missing and inaccurate records lead to poor decision-making and further injustice, both while children are in care and afterwards. For example, care leavers reported finding that their own reports of assaults had not been recorded, or records of staff had been destroyed, or correspondence from parents was withheld, letters that could have explained why they were in care and given them a chance for a better relationship and a better sense of self-worth.
Records are often distributed between several or many different agencies, making it difficult both for care leavers to locate them. Lack of coordination between agencies is a big problem. People looking for records of their time in care need to know what to ask for and where to look. Care leavers are required to approach the agency that provided their care in order to obtain the records relating to their time in care. This can be problematic, particularly in cases where abuse was involved. In general, it can be difficult to get all of the information needed. If they are wanting to follow up regarding abuse they suffered, it is very difficult to get staff records – they may need to file a case in court to do this, if the records haven’t already been destroyed. However, many people don’t want to have to go through a court proceeding.
The average length of time before historic childhood abuse is reported is more than 20 years, which means retention and disposal schedules for records must be revisited, particularly with regard to staff records and police complaints. Length of retention varies between agencies, and ad hoc disposals appear to have happened in the past, as well as appraisal decisions which did not seek input from care-leavers. Documentation in Archives New Zealand’s finding aid Archway (https://www.archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewEntity.do?code=DA443) states that 29,000 index cards dating from 1930 to 1987 “represent the only record of staff at the Department of Social Welfare and the Child Welfare offices [between those dates]. The cards record employees' names and employment history in very brief format.” (Though information about staff on duty can sometimes be found in other records where their names appear as signatures or initials).
I heard at the workshop about the ongoing power records could have over the lives of the people. For example, two children placed with a foster mother who abused the children for years. When they complained her word was taken over theirs, and their complaints were not written down in the official record – which the children had no access to, and had no right to add to. There was no ongoing written record of problems so nothing was done.
We heard from people whose parents had begged to have visiting rights to their children, or to take them back, or whose relatives had offered to have them back. However, those children were not told that their parents had been in contact so spent their lives believing their parents didn’t love them, with all of the consequences to their identity that you can imagine resulting. Sadly, some of their siblings had died and never found out the truth about their parents.
We heard from someone denied further education because of a single, inaccurate note in his official record that he was not bright enough. This man now has a post-graduate University degree. He’s a really strong, determined person who succeeded despite all the odds, but that takes a special kind of resilience that obviously not everyone has.
Finally, from some archivists we heard of the impact of trying to help people who may be badly traumatised, and of the impact of needing to look through records of trauma. They spoke of the lengths many archivists go to trying to help find lost records or trying to help people get permission to access the records, and sometimes being forced to deny access because of decisions made by third parties or because of legislative restrictions.
Recommendations from the workshop
One of the most important points to come from the workshop was the need to get recognition that the children who are the subjects of the records have rights over who should have access to and control over this very personal and significant information about themselves. A central issue that kept coming up at the workshop was that of agency in records. The children the records are about and the agencies gathering the information both see the records as theirs. Some of these records relate to multiple children, so there are multiple potential holders of rights. However, only the agencies are asked permission if others wish to access, create, destroy or use these records. In the most egregious cases, sometimes academic researchers are granted access to records that the people who are written about in the records can’t get access to.
The lack of trust and respect often felt between the agencies and care leavers means that having control over the records kept by the agencies that managed their care is problematic, particularly but not only when abuse was involved.
Some specific recommendations were made:
Care leavers should have access to complete records – no redactions should be made unless there are genuine safety concerns. People have the right to records about their own lives, and their own experiences together with other people. That means a right to any records that support their identity, including records relating to their biological parents, their iwi and hapū, their siblings, education, medical history, information about the places they were in care, the identity of the people looking after them, and other significant life events. Many care leavers may not want to reconnect with their records or be reminded of their time in care. But they must have easy access if and when they want or need it.
Going forward, New Zealand needs overarching standards governing the types of records that should be created and kept by care providers, and who should have control over access, creation, management and destruction is needed. This standard needs to be based on the needs of the child. Recordkeeping professionals have a responsibility to be advocates for policy and legislation to support people’s rights and needs to do with records and archives.
Children in care should be encouraged to make and keep their own records about their lives while they are in care, and to make and record statements about how they are feeling, with photographic, video and sound recordings in support, particularly in cases of abuse. Care leavers and children in care need to be able to add information to records held about them, to provide their point of view.
Legislation relating to records of children in care, as well as adopted children and those born with assisting technologies, needs to acknowledge, meet the needs of and address the rights of those most affected, the children themselves. Current retention requirements for records relating to children in care need to be revisited, particularly with regard to staff records and police complaints, as individuals may not act on abuse for many decades after it has happened.
While saying this, there is existing legislation governing records-access. Care-leavers report that often this is inconsistently, and incorrectly, applied – for example, the Privacy Act is used inappropriately. People responsible for granting records access must be better trained in the relevant legislation.
People responsible for providing access must also be sensitive to the significant affective impact of accessing records from a traumatic time in someone’s life, both for the person who was directly affected by being in care, and their families, and for the person providing access. Not everyone has the skills and knowledge to deal with the difficult encounters between care-leavers and their records. Well-trained and experienced people are required so that the provision of information is done appropriately and the right kind of support is available to those accessing the information. Those responsible must also be well supported, as dealing with traumatic records for other people, particularly in large numbers, is in itself potentially extremely psychologically difficult.
Where access to records is denied, or there are breaches of rights care leavers should have access to the services of an Ombudsman with expertise in the area.
It was suggested that an external body could be responsible for making access decisions and providing access to records, together with access to trained support staff. Regardless, New Zealand needs a central point for identifying the location of records is needed, including an index of Homes throughout New Zealand – The Archives & Records Association of NZ has begun working on this, though the project has no funding as yet – this is discussed below.
Connecting care leavers with the records they need
In Australia, government funding has allowed for the development of an online service called “Find and Connect” (https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/), a central point where information about orphanages, children’s homes and other institutions throughout Australia is available for people wanting to find their own records and related support services. Developing a similar resource in New Zealand could support care leavers in accessing information that preserves their identity, enables them to participate more fully in society and also allows them to seek justice for abuses they suffered. I visited the offices of Find and Connect at Melbourne University, and they have offered to support a similar initiative in New Zealand by providing the software they have developed, free, as well as advice on setting it up. However, so far we have no funding for someone to do it. Find & Connect was set up in Australia through funding received as one of the outcomes of a Royal Commission there into the Stolen Generations.
However, of course we can’t just pick up the Australian model and use it in the New Zealand environment. New Zealand confronts unique issues, including the ongoing disproportionate representation of Māori people in state care. New Zealand’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into historical abuse in state care, and the wide range of groups making submissions on the terms of reference show how many different communities are stakeholders. We need to decide if we want our own Find & Connect, or if something else is needed instead or as well.
If we are going to develop resources to improve rights in records for care leavers and those in care in New Zealand, we need them purpose-built for our unique communities. To create resources that will be useful and won’t do harm, first, we need to understand the many different needs. We need to build partnerships between all stakeholder groups who want to be involved – but again, of course this isn’t going to be simple – there are issues of trust, issues with finding people who could potentially be involved, issues with conflicting needs and wants, and so on. Effort will be necessary to develop a trustworthy, inclusive process from the beginning.
One community that it is essential is involved in the process from the beginning is the Māori community. Māori people make up 15% of the population of New Zealand, but approximately 60% of the people in state care, thanks in a large part to the ongoing impacts of colonisation, where Māori communities were expected to fit in with introduced culture and norms while the majority of their original resources were removed. This means it is even more important to create a decolonised, co-created and community appropriate resource.
The development of this resource is in its early days. So far, we have:
-An offer of software and support to develop a “Find & Connect” for New Zealand
- Lots of enthusiasm
- Some ideas
- Connections with people working in the same area internationally, CLAN NZ, some Māori care-leaver community advocates, other advocates and archivists
What we need now are answers to many questions:
- What are the priorities for rights in records for people in care / care leavers?
- Do we need one resource connecting to many?
- Many separate resources?
- Online? Events-based? Physical? All?
- How to connect with all potential interested communities?
- How to share ownership?
- Where should any resources we create be?
- How to resource? What are the implications?
- Should it involve research? What are the implications?
- Where to start?
The work has begun with a call for information on records held in archives around New Zealand, and some of the data has come in already, particularly relating to records held by Archives NZ. However, there is still a lot more information to be gathered. The next step will be to gather together representatives of interested groups to decide on a structure and format for the resource.
Implications re recordkeeping for the Royal Commission to consider
Providing timely access to records will be a huge issue for all organisations holding records of people in care. Care leavers and providers will all be wanting access to records, so we need to work through this carefully.
The first important step is to ensure that no records are destroyed, and that agencies are held to account for any gaps in their recordkeeping. It also would be useful to look at decisions made on retention and disposal in the past, and how well these were adhered to, as an indication of what might need to be put in place to ensure future practice is improved.
Current policies and legislation relating to rights to access versus rights to privacy also need to be considered. The Commission needs to look at current practices of redaction when access to records is provided, and consider whether privacy legislation is being applied appropriately, or used to unjustly withhold access.
Providing access to the enormous volume of records likely to be required by the Commission and by individuals affected is going to require a lot of resources, particularly for Archives New Zealand. Additional funding will be needed, whether it comes from the agencies or through the Royal Commission.
Ongoing, long-term support will be needed post-Commission for people to find and access their records. Given the lack of trust felt by many care-leavers towards the agencies responsible for their care, this would ideally be managed by an independent body. In terms of locating records, a database similar to Australia’s Find & Connect could be a useful model. Resources would be needed to set this up, and the Commission could consider recommending this as a small step towards redress.
The significance of rights in records for care leavers needs to be kept in the forefront of the Commissioners’ minds as they go through their work, so it doesn’t get side-lined by the many other very important issues to be addressed. The final recommendations must cover recordkeeping needs for the future, to support ongoing evidence for accountability in the future and to do our best to not repeat the mistakes of the past. Care providers must be held to account from now on for creating, managing and providing access to records to the people who have been in their care appropriately. To meet the ongoing needs for rights and identity of care-leavers past, present, and future, it will be essential to acknowledge that people in care have the right to records about their own lives, the right to have their own voice heard in those records and the right to have a say in how those records are managed and shared.
Commonwealth of Australia (2017). Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Final Report. Volume 8: Recordkeeping and Information Sharing. Accessed 22 May 2018 at https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/recordkeeping-and-information-sharing
Goddard, J., Murray, S. & Duncalf, Z (2013). Access to child care records: a comparative analysis of UK and Australian policy and practice. British Journal of Social Work 43(4),759-774
Humphreys C, McCarthy G, Dowling M, Kertesz M, Tropea R (2014) Improving the archiving of records in the out-of-home care sector. Australian Soc Work 67(4): 509–524 http://doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2013.856453
Setting the Record Straight for the Rights of the Child (2018) [Website]. Accessed 22 May 2018 at https://rights-records.it.monash.edu/