Whose File is it? Whose Story is it?

21 June 2015 (Revised 26 June 2015)

Thanks to good people who offered positive feedback on this blog item. I hope the changes have made it clearer and a better read.

Several profound changes have taken place over recent decades that have had a significant impact on how child welfare records are now compiled, stored, and retrieved. The system of child welfare in Australia (and elsewhere) has been transformed.

The shift away from mass residential ‘care’

Mass congregate ‘care’ – in which it was sometimes difficult to make and keep unique records for each child – is no longer the norm. The vast majority of children ‘in need of care and protection’ today are placed with kin, or in foster families, while residential ‘care’ is usually regarded as a last resort for a small minority.

Case managers are able to give closer attention to individual needs as children move in, through, and out of the system. Consequently, they are recording better information about the causes and history of the child’s placement(s), the background and interaction with the family, and critical incidents and milestones as each child matures.

Children have rights too

The greater acceptance of children’s rights – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is now a quarter of a century old – has led to a significant change in the philosophy of child welfare. In principle, it is agreed that children have the right to information about themselves and their family, and the right to participate in the events that shape their lives in ‘care’.

Although some agencies insist that they ‘own’ the records, most would now concede that the subjects of the records are entitled to know what is in them, and that at some point in time they should gain full access to them.

The past is a different place

However, for most of the last century, child welfare records in Australia were made and kept (more or less) purely for administrative, managerial or quasi-legal purposes. At that time, it was never intended that the subjects would read their files – nor were child inmates of institutions ever invited to contribute anything to their record.

Happily, the rationale for holding these historical personal records in closed archives is now under challenge. Record holders are on the back foot, finding it increasingly difficult

  • to resist the surge in applications for access to personal records from older Care Leavers making use of belated rights under Freedom of Information and Right to Information laws; and
  • to articulate the public interest reason for not giving Care Leavers all the information they have.

Some progressive agencies have become proactive in supporting such access. They acknowledge that these historic records have taken on new meanings that were not been imagined when they were first compiled.

Why are these personal files so important to Care Leavers?

It is now clear that these records represent Care Leavers’ best – in some cases, the only – chance of:

  • understanding the narrative of their ‘care’ placement, its causes and history – it’s startling to know that man adults still do not know why they were put into ‘care’ and blame themselves for their terrible childhood;
  • recreating a sense of identity that has its roots in memories of childhood experience;
  • making sense of life-long questions about where they belong;
  • reconstructing and, where still possible, reconnecting with their families; and
  • verifying their memories of specific events in order to validate claims for redress or litigation (although we know that neglect and emotional, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated in institutional ‘care’ were rarely documented).

Gaining access to these records for any of the above purposes is a significant act of empowerment for many Care Leavers.

Where is ‘my file’?

Care Leavers asking for their file sometimes find that it does not exist as a single entity in one location. If they were in more than one placement or with more than one agency – and many were – they will have to play detective, experiencing dead ends and long delays, and being told stories of archive boxes lost in transition or destroyed when a Home was closed.

When they finally track down who holds the parts of their record, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be able to have full and immediate access to it. In many cases, they are made to jump through bureaucratic hoops by the keepers of the keys to the archives.

The contents can cause pain in the short term.

This short piece is not the place to cite specific examples; but time and again many Care Leavers and support organisations like CLAN (Care Leavers of Australasia Network) have cited content which has distressed and sometimes re-traumatised the survivor. Some of the main issues causing concern are briefly mentioned below.


Many records are littered with errors of fact about matters such as dates of birth and names of siblings, and even genealogical muddles (with grandmothers, for example, being listed as mothers).


Sometimes Care Leavers find that they had been lied to as children, for example, being told their parents had died or had abandoned them and wanted no further contact, only to discover in their files undelivered letters from their parents, or pleas to regain custody that were refused. Others learn for the first time that they have long-forgotten siblings who were placed in another Home – and no one bothered to tell them.

Unchallenged value judgments

The welfare storytellers had unimpeded power over what was recorded and what was not, with little control over the quality of what could be written. Many files are packed with opinions, perceptions, subjective assessments of the family situation, and judgments of the child’s attitude, compliance with rules and instances of bad behaviour. Notations, once made, were never challenged, corrected, erased – or unmade. All too often they became the basis of further entries until the falsities attained the status of objective certainty.

Many are disappointed to find nothing positive in their files.

Survivors infer they must have been a burden to their ‘carers’, who never saw anything to praise, applaud, or celebrate. The things children or their parents did wrong cancelled out anything right. Some Care Leavers have been known to destroy ‘their file’ as an act of repudiation of its contents.

Important gaps in many records.

Care Leavers are surprised that their files contain no documents about health, schooling and other significant events in their childhood. More important, for some, records about institutional neglect and gross sexual, physical and psychological abuse are rare. If notes were ever kept about these criminal acts against children at their most vulnerable, they are not often found in the obvious place. Survivors’ files are the least likely place to find the most telling information.


Redactions – censorship

Most are troubled by unexplained black-outs or white-outs, or pages withheld. Usually, these mask references to ‘third parties’ – commonly siblings or parents. Risk-aversive record holders are biased in favour of protecting the rights of others – even the dead – over the rights of a survivor who is left wondering why these ‘third parties’ found their way into their file in the first place. Record holders claim that the full release of records is likely to cause harm to someone, but that claim is usually merely asserted and rarely tested by referring it to the third party (where that is still possible). It is time for record holders to stop invoking the magic word ‘privacy’ as if it erases Care Leavers’ right to know.

Where is the voice of the child?

The life-stories found in the archives are often cold, distant and lacking in empathy. The records were written by officials for an official audience – never for the family or the child in later life. The voice of the Care Leaver is nowhere to be heard.

Can the present learn anything from the past?

What can contemporary child and family agencies learn from the mistakes of past practice? If the custodians of the records of older Care Leavers records have been listening, they would have heard two key challenges from historic practices that might improve their current practice.

  • It is the child’s story – theirs to take away when their time in ‘care’ is up.
  • The adults can only tell so much of the story – the child has a critically important point of view too.

Administrators and carers should be warned. From the outset they should understand that the records of a child’s time in ‘care’ will eventually belong to the young person – and that one day, the entire record may be handed over. They should hold no doubt when they write case notes for a young person’s file, that what they write should be fair, balanced, accurate, honest and purposeful. The days when the file says as much about the compilers as about the young person are surely over.

Of course, the agency should archive a copy for the purposes of accountability and any future evaluation of the program so that they can identify areas for improvement (and it would be generous to be able to come to the rescue with a duplicate if former clients lose their files).

To the greatest extent possible, the child and young person should be encouraged to contribute to their own file throughout their time in ‘care’. Apart from engendering reflective thought about their situation and critical events that occur from time to time, this practice ought to ensure that there would be no unexpected revelations when it comes time for them to leave ‘care’.

This form of participation would be developmental: the older the children the more they could be expected to contribute in this way. And the more involved they are the better they will become at articulating and recording the important events that are shaping their young lives. They should tell their own story – and they should be free to challenge other voices who populate their personal file.

The past has not finished with us – whose file is it?

As indicated above, the life-stories found in historic records were never written for the family or the child in later life. The voice of the Care Leaver is nowhere to be heard in the archives.

But is it too late to make amends? Can we retrofit Care Leaver records so that older Care Leavers can reconstruct a more truthful, rounded, and emotionally compelling narrative than their current records convey?

Modern FOI and privacy legislation allows personal information lodged in official records to be challenged ‘where it is inaccurate, incomplete, out of date, or where it would give a false impression’. If an agency is not prepared to amend personal information in accordance with a request, it must, if requested, attach a statement to the personal information that can be read in conjunction with your personal information. A similar rule applies in NSW under the Privacy and Personal Information Protection Act.

This is a fine social justice principle, but few Care Leavers appear to have the stomach for the task of correcting or annotating their ‘official’ record – or do not see it as the best way to reconstruct a more balanced narrative.

Instead, an increasing number of older Care Leavers are writing their own life-stories for their own purposes – for family members, for other Care Leavers or for the wider public – if they can find a publisher. Digital publishing and print-on-demand technologies open up new possibilities, as do short-form magazines and on-line notices. 

A number of support groups encourage Care Leavers to share their stories in newsletters. CLAN, for example, had published more than 300 of these stories to date. These alternative, competing, or counter narratives often resonate with the Care Leaver community who find their files fail to tell the story that makes sense of the childhood they remember. Over the years these story tellers have created a unique community of common interest.

Some Care Leavers have other purposes. Some are content to use whatever is available in their file to reconnect with other members of their fragmented family – or, where it is too late, to pay a visit to a family grave. Another group seek, and sometimes find, the scraps of information that verify their memories of specific events in order to pursue claims for redress or litigation.

These archived records are historic only in the sense that they were written long ago, but imperfect as many of them are, they can make a difference to the quality of Care Leavers’ lives today. Record holders should be unstinting in granting access to those who were once in their ‘care’.


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