It was something that many would consider quite silly but to me it was very important. I was having problems remembering who used to sit next to me at the dinner table, and the more I thought about who would sit next to me the more I became frightened.
You see, the foster parents that I was placed with not only took in children but also took in mentally-ill adult men. That’s why I had difficulty remembering who would sit next to me at the dinner table. And therefore you may now understand the reason for the fear.
Obviously, the more I remembered in that one night the more I wondered if there was a possibility of me, now, being allowed access to view my file. I wasn’t sure who I would need to contact, but I was determined to view my file.
On Monday I decided to contact Social Services and inquired as to what the procedure would be for me to view my file. I was told that I would first need to put in writing a request to view it and then someone from Social Services would contact me regarding this.
I put the letter in writing straightaway, a formal letter stating that I would like to see my file and giving them as much information as I could with regards to, e.g:
- My name, age, and when I went into care.
- The name of my parents.
- The name of my social worker, and name of the office where she was based.
- The name of the family that I was placed with, their address and the names of their children.
By providing all of this information, it helps to speed up the process for those who have to search through the archives to find it.
When considering gaining access to your file, if you were like me, a person placed in care in the 1980s or dates before that, the filing system is totally different from that of the 1990s and present dates, Social Services tend not to have separated the files of families and therefore may have one large file/ files on the whole family, under the name of the parents, not the child/children. (I will discuss this point further in the following paragraphs).
I was contacted by a social worker in writing, shortly after writing to them; enclosed in the letter sent to me was a document which I was informed that I had to sign in order to see my file. The form had two sentences for which I had to delete one. The first of the sentences said “I do intend to take legal action”. The second sentence was: “I do not intend to take legal action at present”.
At this point, because I was unsure as to how it would affect me in the future if I decided to take legal action, I spoke to a solicitor and was reassured that if I signed that bit which said “I did not intend to take legal action at present” it would not affect me taking legal action in the future – because of the word “present”, which means that if I found something in my file I could take action in the future.
By the way, I forgot to tell you that I knew that if I had signed the part which says; “I do intend to take legal action” this would have delayed my file because Social Services would then be obligated to send the file to their legal departments for their perusal. And they can, at this point, remove information from the file that they do not wish you to view.
I did have to use the Data Protection Act 1998, which states that organisations such as Social Services have a 40-day turn over period within which they must tell you about all the data that they have concerning you. I found that this did speed things up, because I kept a copy of the formal letter which I had sent to them requesting to see my file. Starting from the date on which I had written to them is when 40 day period began.
It was also the same with regards to Social Services in Wolverhampton, where I was born. I had written to them a formal letter, requesting access to my file, but I found that the staff responsible for this area were quite incompetent and were unaware of the 40-day turn-around period. In actual fact, the member of staff responsible for providing me with access to my file said she was “told by her manager that it was 80 days”. I informed them that it is in fact 40 days.
May I say at this point that I received my file two days later by special delivery.
Referring back to my previous point with regards to family files, I did experience some problem with the people in archives trying to find my file, because it was not listed under my name but listed under the name of my mother. Also, once they have found the file the social worker’s then have to go through it, separating documents regarding yourself from those of your siblings.
Under the Data Protection Act, you cannot gain access to your sibling’s file without their permission and therefore, depending on how many children there are in the family, separating the file may take some time. But again do not underestimate the impact of stating to the social service officer, “that they have 40 days in which to allow you to access your file”. If not, they are in breach of this legislation and therefore you should instruct a solicitor to assist you.
And, if you think about it, 40 days is equivalent to six weeks so they do have sufficient time to do the necessary separation of files and allow you to access yours.
Another point that may be of interest is you are allowed copies of your file for your own keeping. I am not sure of the policy for all of Social Services, as it may vary from county to county, but if you are not working and are in receipt of benefits you are allowed copies of your file/s free of charge. So, remember to bring proof of benefits, or you may be charged in some cases up to £50.
I would also like to say that if you do intend to access your file, try and get some support. I cannot stress this enough!! I found looking at my file very distressing and it did take some time for me to come to terms with the things written in it.
It is because of this change in the law that I am able to write about my experience of accessing my file. The people that had fostered me as well as my social worker never thought that I would one day be able to see the things that were so untrue that were written about me.
The foster parents and my social worker have given me the opportunity to not only read about my life and how bad things were in care, but they have given me the opportunity to take legal action against them for the terrible things that they have caused me to experience.
It is due my foster parents and my social worker that I am at present a law student. My life has not been easy and it is still far from it… but what these individuals did was to take away my rights and instill in me the belief that everything I did was wrong… even my existence.
By studying law I now know what my rights are… and I am determined to encourage others to know what their rights are too. I did not want to be bullied or stay a victim any more. The child I was back then has made me the woman I am today and I am proud of her!
Many people have not had the experiences that children like us have had. We have survived those ordeals and we have not become anything like the adults that they are. We truly were EXTRAORDINARY CHILDREN to survive the things we experienced.