For more than 30 years, adopted people aged 18 and over have had the right to find out about their past. It is now accepted practice to give adopted adults access to information about their birth family members and the circumstances of their adoption.
For adults who have been in care as children or young people, however, it is a different story. There are at least 300,000 former care adults in the UK, and more than 4,000 of these seek to access their child care files each year. Yet, too often, their quests end in frustration and disappointment (see case study, opposite).
Findings from a survey of local authorities carried out by the Care Leavers’ Association earlier this year reveal the extent of this “highly variable service” to care leavers across the UK. Norfolk Council, for example, admitted to having been unable to meet more than one-third of its requests for access to files by former care adults between 2000 and 2006 because their files had been destroyed. Rotherham Council, by contrast, claimed to have provided whole files to all bar one of the 114 former care adults who requested access from them over the same period.
“Before 1989, the rules were that local authorities could destroy these files three or four years after you left care,” says Jim Goddard, social policy lecturer and secretary of the CLA. “A lot of local authorities did that the more sensible ones didn’t.”
While the law now ensures that files are kept until a former care adult’s 75th birthday, confusion and inconsistent practice remain about exactly how much of what is contained in those files ever reaches the person it concerns.
The key issue here is third-party content. Under the Data Protection Act 1998, a person does not have the right to know what is recorded about someone else. For former care adults – unlike adopted adults, whose records are exempt from the 1998 act – this means information in their files about birth family members is often withheld or blacked out, even if access to files is granted.
Julia Feast, policy, research and development consultant for Baaf Adoption and Fostering, says that having to adhere only to the Data Protection Act’s principles rather than its provisions allows adoption agencies the discretion to give out whatever information they think is right under adoption laws.
“For people to understand their beginning and routes and information about themselves, they need to know about their background – so adoption agencies are willing to give information about their families, their siblings,” says Feast. But due to a lack of guidance for local authorities, she adds, they differ about how much they give care leavers. “Access to information is a very complex area. The Information Commissioner’s Office would say they do have flexibility. But local authorities would interpret – and have interpreted – that differently. So people get a different service depending where they live.”
For Feast and Goddard, the solution is new legislation to bring former care adults in line with adopted adults. They see the recently published Care Matters white paper as the perfect way to achieve this, and are set to lobby for relevant amendments. As a result, Goddard points out, information about a former care adult’s family would be seen as crucial information, not third-party information to be deleted.
“We need legislation that will take account of the particular needs of care leavers so they can get information to help them gain a full sense of identity and understand why they came into care,” says Feast. “Legislation for people in care needs to take account of life-long issues. Care Matters is an opportunity for that.”
Feast acknowledges that many care leavers are concerned about any such change resulting in obligatory counselling as a condition of access to files. She insists that “counselling” is the wrong word, but that support and advice services should be available to reflect the changing nature of the information being passed on to former care adults.
“It is not about making counselling obligatory,” says Feast. “It is about having the right to access the support they might need while accessing information about their backgrounds. Data protection is clear that you don’t hand out information that is distressing. When someone wants information, you meet them to understand why they want it. This is not a test.”
While she understands why some care leavers don’t want to be “social worked”, she says Baaf’s experience of people who have been adopted is that they are pleased to have the support and advice – and help with finding family members. “Applying for information without third party stuff is OK for the broad facts. But people want more. That’s fine, but having more means they may need it given in a supported way.”
➔ Please e-mail your views on access to information for care leavers to email@example.com
Improving Access to Records
Accessing records is an increasingly important area of work for local authorities. However, a question mark still hangs over:
● The quality and availability of training for workers involved in access to record work.
● Councils’ efforts to publicise access to records services.
● The lack of formal systems in place to gather feedback about the experience of accessing information from care records so that the right kinds of service and support can be provided.
The Care Leavers’ Association has therefore launched a campaign to:
● Promote awareness of care leavers’ rights to access their files.
● Promote awareness of the importance of these personal records to care leavers.
● Promote best practice on accessing these vital documents.
➔ For more on the campaign and full results of the CLA’s survey of local authorities, go to www.communitycare.co.uk/careleaversaccessCASE STUDY
Patricia* , who spent her childhood in care
‘How could the council lose my life story?’
Patricia* is a child protection social worker and mother-of-four who spent much of her childhood in care. Aged 42, she decided she wanted to know more about her past. In 2001, after five years of wrangling, she finally received 990 photocopied pages from her files.
Of those, at least 100 were blank, at least another 100 were illegible where they were covered in black ink from the photocopier and a further 150 pages had huge areas blacked out with no explanation. She believes hundreds of other pages were missing.
Earlier this year, Patricia went back to the council to fill in some of the gaps. This time, she was told her file had been lost – along with all her siblings’ files.
“There is just so much stuff I think I would like an explanation for,” says Patricia. “I would like to know what did I look like as a child. Was I ugly? There is one reference in my notes to me having slitty eyes, and another to my problems being linked to my size. Was I fat? I would like to have had just one photo.
“I wonder how did something that large go missing? It was in a building. It was photocopied. It’s no longer there. I’m not talking about four or five pieces of paper. I have a letter from 1997 describing my file – it says it’s three box files. How can you lose that?”
“I have a legal right until I’m 75 to get that document and now it’s gone. Never again do I have a chance to make sense of my life. And not just mine, but my whole family’s.”
➔ For Patricia’s full story and to hear from more former care adults who have accessed their files, go to www.communitycare.co.uk/careleaversaccess
*Not her real name
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This article appeared in the 19 July issue under the headline “The need to know”