by Julie Levitt
A few years ago I had bereavement counselling when I lost my beloved nana. The counselling focused on why I felt her loss so great and what she meant to me, which also led to reflecting on my childhood.
The reason I felt my nana’s loss so keenly was because she was my rock. Having been a looked after child, she was the one consistent person in my life who loved me unconditionally.
The therapy was fantastic and I got to the stage where I was feeling so positive and happy about my life and the future.
It was then I decided I wanted to read my social services file. I requested access to it and waited for it to arrive. I returned home one lunchtime excited to read my story. However what I read upset me and I was left bereft for the full weekend.
There was no mention of how I was feeling
Within the file there was no mention of how I was feeling or why I kept running away from home prior to being placed in care. Nothing about my mother being an alcoholic, or her partner being abusive to me. What it did say – and what upset me so much – was that apparently I “sniffed glue” amongst other things.
My husband told me to ignore it as I knew it wasn’t true, but it wasn’t that easy. I asked my counsellor to read my file to understand how upset I was.
My counsellor highlighted that in the file my voice wasn’t heard. No-one had taken the time to ask me, the child, what was happening at home – or if they had it certainly hadn’t been recorded.
No record of my good experiences
What hurt also was that all the recording from staff in the children’s home where I lived was non-existent. I wanted to read about my life in the home because for me it had been a pleasure.
Several months later I wrote a letter to the local authority where I had been in care and that had sent me the file. I stated that despite my being a social worker I should have been invited into the office as is usual to read my file. It shouldn’t have been sent out to me.
I told them I hadn’t been prepared for what I’d read in the file. I then asked them to place – at the front of my file – a letter I wrote that detailed why I ran away and why I believed I’d been in care. Whether the local authority did as requested I have no idea but I felt better for asking.
Reflecting on practice
My experience reading my file made me reflect on my own social work practice. I always felt that I recorded with care but I’ve become more aware of what I record and how.
I also know that the child may, as I did, choose to read their personal care file when they grow up. I would hate for them to feel as I had and I am a professional someone who is rational, confident and self-aware. It still didn’t stop me from feeling utterly devastated that my mother could tell such lies and direct blame and attention from herself.
I also felt so sad for the child that I was, that no one had taken the time to ask me what was happening, how I was feeling. Professionals had just assumed my mother was telling the truth.
I appreciate that my time in care was just before the Children Act 1989 came into force but within my social work practice I have observed poor recording. Whilst I don’t go around telling all social worker and foster carers my story I do feel able to share with foster carers I supervise and new social workers to be mindful of what they say and how they record and detail a child’s day and life.
I can appreciate there may be times that behaviour isn’t good but I would hope that all recording is factual, relevant and most importantly that the child’s voice, their wishes and feelings are documented. Being child centred and empathetic, putting yourself in that child’s shoes can help ensure recording is reflective of the situation and what the child is feeling at the time.