Care leavers battle for records

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The barriers faced by adult care leavers who try to access their records are being highlighted in a campaign.

Despite having the right to apply for their records, many people who spent time in care face huge challenges when they do so – including delays, institutional indifference and a lack of emotional support, according to the Access to Care Records Campaign Group.

And even once the files arrive, whole chunks may be missing or heavily redacted due to data protection rules, leaving them with many unanswered questions about their childhood experiences.

The campaign group is reigniting a call for action to address the legislative, policy and practical barriers that are preventing many people making peace with their past.

Call for standards

The Access to Care Records Campaign Group is pushing for the introduction of national standards for access to the files, as well as a legal requirement to offer support services for adult care leavers who apply. They say guidance introduced in 2014 focused only on care leavers aged under 25 and is largely ignored by local authorities anyway.

Members of the group include the user-led Care Leavers’ Association (CLA), the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers and Barnardos.

Darren Coyne, project manager at the Manchester-based CLA, who has himself been through the process of applying for his care records, said reading his files was difficult enough, and unexplained redactions only made it worse.

“It makes you feel robbed,” he said. “You feel: ‘How dare you think you’ve got permission to keep hold of a bit of me?’

“This process is about care leavers empowering themselves, it’s about their memory and taking ownership of their life and their time in care. If someone grows up within a family they can talk to a parent or look through a photo album. That care file is the equivalent of our photo album.

“When people apply for their records, local authorities don’t offer any support for their emotional needs or understanding the content – some of which may be a surprise to the care leaver. Councils are often defensive, as if they think people are asking for records because they want to sue them.

“We believe councils need to take responsibility and feel providing support for those who receive their files should be an obligation for local authorities, no matter what that may look like.”

This week the Access to Care Records Campaign Group is holding a roundtable event at the House of Lords, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, herself a care leaver.

Sociologist Dr Becky Clarke, from Manchester Metropolitan University, will present research she undertook for the CLA on the experiences of adult care leavers who have tried to apply for their records. Three-quarters of her 20 interviewees were aged over 40 and none had any idea it was their legal right to access their past care records – often doing so after hearing about the possibility through word of mouth.

All faced significant barriers and seven got nothing back despite their requests. Of the 13 who did receive files, these were often provided in a fragmented form and with significant redactions due to data protection rules.

Despite the contents often bringing back difficult or traumatic memories, no practical or emotional support was offered in understanding the documents or coping with the contents.

The report, Battling with a “Care-less” Process, highlights how experiences of powerlessness, unforgotten from childhood, are reproduced for vulnerable adults who are seeking answers.

Clarke said: “In theory, care leavers should be able to access their records but our research showed there are all sorts of barriers to them achieving this. It’s a real lottery.

“There are some institutional barriers and other challenges are reflections of the way different local authorities approach this right. It also seems to depend on people’s age and when they were in care – records were captured in different ways.”

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