Climbing trees

Children and young people today who are looked after by local authorities usually grow up with an understanding of why they have come into care and information about their family background. Current practice includes children having a life story book, mapping the significant events in their life with photographs of themselves and their family. Also, children, at least in principle, attend reviews and are informed of their rights to access information about themselves from their care records.

So, imagine what it must be like for people who were brought up in care in decades gone by, where such openness did not exist and where the importance of sharing information with the child or young person was not seen as a priority – or even necessary. Many former care adults were not given basic information about their family history or even the reasons why they could no longer remain with their family, as Bill* describes:

I had always wondered about why my mother left me in a children’s home. I have recollections of her visiting me but from the age of six I did not see her. I felt unwanted and abandoned. It was not until I was 40 years old when I asked for access to my information that I learned that I had not been abandoned and that my mother did care for me. I learned for the first time that my mother had mental health problems and for this reason the voluntary agency deterred her from seeing me. They wrote telling her that her visits distressed me and it would be in my interests for her not to come.

While the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 rightly addresses the needs of younger care leavers, it does not acknowledge the lifelong needs of adults who have been brought up in care. The dominant assumption remains that, for people brought up in care, the need for services is confined to young adulthood and does not have lifelong implications. This contrasts with the view in relation to adoption. However, for many people who spent part or all of their childhood in care, the effects of their care experience can reverberate throughout their lifespan. For example, one study found that former care adults were generally older when they decided to access information about their background, with an average age of 49 years, compared with the typical age of 30 years for adopted people.(1)

Earlier this year, a landmark debate about the lifelong needs of former care adults took place in the House of Lords. The debate, led by Baroness Barker, brought to the fore the need for government and local authorities to redress the balance and to ensure that the lifelong needs of former care adults are placed on the same footing as those of adopted people. 

The gulf between services that adopted people and their families receive and those available to people brought up in care needs to be bridged. For many years there has been a legislative framework in place and established practice to assist adopted people to access the support and services they may need across their lifespan. Adopted people can access information about their origins, family background and the circumstances of their adoption. Also, there are intermediary services to help them contact birth family members. The same opportunities and facilities do not extend to most former care adults – although in many cases they are just as likely to share the same need for information about their own personal history and desire to re-establish contact with family members.

A key difference is that adoption records are exempt from the Data Protection Act 1998, whereas records relating to former care adults are not. The requirements of this act mean that former care adults may be given very little or disjointed information, because of the restrictions on providing third party data, as Jill* describes:

I had been in care for 15 years and heard that I could apply for my records, but all I got was 10 sheets of paper with lots of information Tipexed out – I wondered why I bothered to access the information as what I got did not make a lot of sense.

In a recent survey of local authorities, Goddard found that one of the main areas that agencies struggled with was how to handle third party information, ie information about other children or family members.(2) Because of the restrictions and constraints of data protection legislation, there are tensions created by attempts at making the story meaningful for the former care adult and the need to respect the confidentiality rights of third parties.

The study has shown that practices and policies for accessing information under the Data Protection Act 1998 vary enormously. For example, some local authorities believe that it is important for former care adults to be given the opportunity to receive support during the process of accessing information by offering, and strongly recommending, an advance appointment to discuss some of the issues this action may raise for them.

Others considered that this was often not necessary. In these circumstances, the records could be sent through the post without any preparation given to the former care adult, as in Maria’s* case:

I was brought up in care for 17 years and placed in three different homes. I have some happy memories but also others that still distress me today which I find very difficult to talk about to anyone. I phoned the local authority to get access to my records. Two months later a large brown envelope was posted through my letter box. As I began to read the contents I couldn’t help feeling upset and angry. Not only did I learn for the first time that I had an older sister who had been adopted but also I was shocked and deeply hurt by some of the comments that had been written about me, which were derogatory and inaccurate. It all played on my mind for several months and I wish I had been better prepared for some of the contents.

The study also found that most access-to-records officers had not had any specific training about data protection legislation. Moreover, training on the psychological impact on former care adults of receiving this type of information was extremely rare. While most agencies provided  counselling, only a few went further and provided help in searching for birth relatives.

The debate in the House of Lords highlighted the dearth of policy and practice guidelines for agencies that provide access to information services. The research evidence confirms that services for former care adults across UK are patchy and vary widely in quality. Much more attention needs to be given to this if we are to provide the same standard of services throughout the UK for people who have been brought up in care as for those who have been adopted. This may need legislation, alongside policy and national guidance that underline the needs of people who have been raised in the care system. Without this recognition and the development of suitable services, former care adults will continue to receive a second rate service.

* Names have been changed

 Julia Feast is the policy, research and development consultant at Baaf Adoption and Fostering. In the past she managed the post-adoption and care counselling research project at The Children’s Society, worked as a local authority social worker and team manager, and also as a children’s guardian and reporting officer. Jim Goddard is lecturer in social policy at the University of Bradford and Derek Kirton is lecturer in social policy and social work at the University of Kent at Canterbury

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article highlights the lack of attention that has been given to the lifelong needs of people brought up in care concerning access to information. It explores the gulf between the services that adopted people and their families receive compared with those available to people brought up in care, and argues that it is time to redress the balance.

(1) D Kirton, E Peltier, E Webb, “After all these years: accessing care records”, Adoption and Fostering, 25 (4): 39-49, 2001
(2) J Goddard, J Feast, D Kirton, A Childhood on Paper: Accessing the Social Services Care Files of Looked After Children in the UK, Bradford University, 2005
See also by the same authors, ‘A Childhood on Paper: Accessing care records under the Data Protection Act 1998’, Adoption and Fostering 29 (3): 82-84, 2005

Contact the author

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.