Setting the record straight

6 June 2017

Record keeping can be seen as just another chore, the domain of archivists concerned with keywords and disposal schedules or a tedious administrative task for overworked caseworkers.

But for people who have spent a significant portion of their life in the care of institutions, official records can assume a huge significance as they try to craft a personal history and an identity from fragmented memories.

Children who grew up with their families might ask a family member ‘how did you wrap me as a baby’,  ‘why did you pick that school for us’, ‘how old was I when I got my first tooth’ or ‘can we look at my kindy book?’  They might trawl shoeboxes of old photos or swipe through an iPhone to look at pictures.  They might see certificates of their achievements displayed on the walls of their home alongside pictures of special holidays or treasured relatives.  They might uncover birth certificates in bottom drawers or in the backs of filing cabinets alongside old x-rays and school reports.

For children who have been in care with little access to these kinds of resources, formal records can hold large parts of the story of their lives, sometimes the only way to fill in key pieces of the puzzle.

But organisations are not always good at keeping records.

Record keeping has been historically biased towards text, such as case plans, file notes and reports. We often ignored the rich life-information that waited to be interrogated in the photographs, documents and memorabilia that also surrounded a child.

Record keeping is not always sensitively done, either, allowing that records may later be read by the very people who were once their subject. Children and young people are seldom asked to contribute to their own records.

Record keeping historically has been mostly concerned with the needs of the organisation, to record what was needed to conduct the business, rather than considering the future needs of the child.

And records are not always complete. Important conversations are not noted and the reasons for life-changing decisions are sometimes scantily recorded or not recorded at all.

Even when records have been made, the documents have not always been treated with a level of care consistent with their future value to children.  Many older records have been misplaced or damaged in fire or floods.  A presenter at the recent Setting the Record Straight for the Rights of the Child national summit observed cynically that one particular organisation seemed especially prone to flooding.

Where records are made and survive, we are not always good at providing access to them to people who have been in care.  Although the right to access their records is now guaranteed in jurisdictions across Australia, people who have tried to access them have not always found it easy. There can be considerable work involved in preparing and presenting records, and some organisations have tried to avoid that work by refusing or delaying requests for access.

Where records are provided, they are frequently redacted, that is, sections are blacked out with the intention of protecting the privacy of third parties. While protecting third parties is laudable, redaction has been inconsistent, sometimes being light and at other times removing so much of a record that it conveys very little of use.

But simply handing over records to a former client does not end an organisation’s responsibility. Presentation of records should be done in a way that assists the recipient to deal with their contents practically and emotionally.  Records frequently need to be interpreted.  Helping a person to understand the context for a record can be all-important to them constructing a cohesive story around the events that are recorded. Records will frequently trigger emotions or reawaken trauma and having skilled staff on hand to help is also the responsibility of the record keeper.

‘…knowing who you are and your history’ is one of the rights enshrined in the Charter of Rights for Children and Young People in Care.  It is based on the understanding that a respectful, comprehensive and vibrant archive of a child’s history can be central to developing a strong identity with lifelong benefits to happiness and wellbeing.

Much more than a dull chore.

The Guardian’s publication ‘Child sensitive record keeping’ is a useful download if you or your organisation is considering how well you manage records.

This article first appeared in the Guardian’s Newsletter in May 2017.

GOM – what’s in a name? – poll results

It started out as a neutral acronym, a convenient short form of Guardianship of the Minister, which made it’s way into common usage among professionals working with children in care.  We polled professionals and the results are below.

Young people in care have told us they don’t like it.  They find it offensive for its negative connotations and prefer terms like ‘children in care’ or, more formally, ‘children under the guardianship of the Minister’.

In the words of a Youth Advisory Committee member in 2011…

It’s wrong to call someone a ‘GOM kid’… it’s offensive…no-one thinks good of you when they say ‘he’s a GOM kid’

For this reason alone we should stop using it.

But there are other reasons.

Language conditions our thinking.  Acronyms routinely applied to a group of people can become dehumanising and so Australia’s First Peoples now, legitimately, dislike the use of ‘ATSI’. Up til the end of the last century ‘the disabled’ were a common subject of the discourse until we made the conscious mindshift that they were ‘people with disabilities’ – that is people first and foremost and not defined by a disability.

When ‘GOM’ comes from the lips of even the most well-meaning person or appears in the pages of the most high-minded document it falls like the thud of a stamp indelibly marking the subject as someone permanently defined and confined by a circumstance over which they have no control.

We could abolish this peculiarly South Australian term from our speech and writing at once with a minor effort of mindfulness. It would be one more step to reforming our habits of thinking, and the attitudes of the community, and remind them that, to us, they are children and young people first, last and always.

The results of a poll on whether we should use the term “GOM’ conducted between 14 and 20 June 2016 gave the following results:

What’s been done – December 2009 to February 2010

Implementation of the Information Sharing Guidelines is going well with Nunkuwarrin Yunti, DECS, DFC, SA Health and UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide in the training and induction phase for staff.  The second stage agencies, Australian Red Cross, Centacare and the government agencies under the umbrella of the Department of Justice, are preparing their procedures.

The Guardian’s 2008-09 Annual Report was tabled in Parliament in late October and the report of the inquiry into the use of physical restraint was released to the public on 13 January.  The restraint report and a report summary are available on the Guardian’s website.

A brochure to encourage young people under guardianship to consider applying to attend university was distributed to all Families SA offices, secondary schools and major universities.

The Office’s Child-sensitive records checklist,is now available as a PDF download

The Being in Care products for children are in demand and some items are now out of stock.  We are delighted that so many children have the products and hear the message that they have the right to be safe.

Sara Bann, one of our Youth Advisors, met the Prime Minister on 20 January and gave him a copy of the book, How Australian Kids See the World, commemorating the 20thanniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We welcome to our team Benita Brinkworth, 15, our newest Youth Advisor.

Participation of children and young people in decisions made about their care – guide to good practice

This guide to good practice is intended to encourage adults who are making decisions about children’s and young people’s care to work with them on those decisions.  This is not just about children’s rights, though that is clear, but about making good decisions.  Good decisions are not absolute and we do not have perfect foresight so we will make mistakes.  However good decisions are as much about the way we do it and the impressions we leave, as the decision itself.

You can download a PDF file of the Guide-to-good-practice-in-childrens-particpation .

Child-sensitive records checklist

This checklist can help workers and their agencies ensure that case records and reports produced about a child or young person are child-centred and child-sensitive.

It is based on what young people have told the Office of the Guardian  about what information they think should be recorded and how it should be recorded.

The Child-sensitive records checklist can be downloaded as a PDF file from our website or printed copies can be obtained via our requesting materials page.

Participation of children and young people in decisions – literature review

6 November, 2008

For most children and young people, decisions about where to go to school, where to live and who they spend time with are made by their parents.  Children and young people in care have these decisions made in formal processes such as case conferences by a number of adults, some of whom a child or young person might not know (Thomas & O’Kane 1998, 1999).  Participation is important for all children and young people, but even more so for children and young people in state care.

This literature review examines the participation of children and young people who are in state care in decisions about their lives.  It focuses on individual case planning and review meetings as a venue in which participation can be exercised. Participation, of course, is also an ongoing process and participation can occur in other settings such as family group conferences.

You can download a PDF file of Participation of children and young people in decisions – literature review and a PDF file of Summary of Participation of children and young people in decisions – literature review from our website.