In what follows, I am going to use my own experience to show some of the difficulties and rewards of accessing your files. However, my own story is not typical. For one thing, it took place before the Data Protection Act 1998. You can read elsewhere on this website about some of the different experiences people have in trying to get access to their files and about what the current law says on this subject.
I was in the care of Wirral Social Services, in various children’s homes (including a couple of years in Liverpool) for fourteen years (1966-1980). When I left care, I had no life story book and very few photographs (I got a lot of photographs, many years later, from the woman who ran the main home I was in). I didn’t know that I had a file or could get access to it. After university (1981-84), I joined NAYPIC and became more interested in finding out about my past through hearing about other adults with a care background who had tried to get hold of their files.
By this time, I was living in Norwich. Fortunately, I was regularly going home to visit my father. On one of these trips, in early 1988, I visited the local social services office and asked about seeing my files. I had heard about the Access to Records Act 1987 and mistakenly thought it granted me full access. I was referred to another office, who told me that I needed to fill in a form and give them time to find the file. I went back to Norwich and awaited the form. I received a letter telling me to write, instead, direct to the Area Officer. I wrote to him in June 1988 and received a quick reply aske me to complete an application form. I duly did this, adding a request that I be able to photocopy the file or have it at home for a few days to make notes and study it properly.
My request to photocopy or borrow the file was turned down (I haven’t got a record of the reasons). However, after proving my identity I got to see my file, in the company of the Area Officer, for about an hour and half. The Area Officer had already made some helpful notes from the file for me. I was then left alone to make my own notes and managed to write down six pages worth of the most important information. While I appreciated the time that the Area Officer had given to this and his general helpfulness, I was dissatisfied that I’d only been allowed such brief access to this account of fourteen years of my life.
In 1990, after reading about a young person who had been given their file on ‘permanent loan’ and also hearing, worryingly, of a policy that old files were soon to be destroyed by Wirral Social Services, I wrote again requesting that I have a copy of the file. The same Area Officer wrote back, confirming that there had been a file destruction policy but that it had been deferred (it was later dropped). He also said that he couldn’t let me have the file, but didn’t give a reason. He said I should let him know if I wanted to look at my file again and he would facilitate it. I didn’t think it would be worth it for another six pages of notes (with hindsight, I can see that it would have been) and left it there.
The next phase was more complex and bureaucratic, but ultimately more satisfying:
- August 1996: I wrote to the Director of Social Services requesting the file on permanent loan and enclosing an article from ‘Who Cares?’ magazine about a case where this had been allowed.
- February 1997: I chase a response, but having moved house it had gone astray. The Director of Social Services encloses her response from November, apologising for the delay due to difficulties in locating the file and having to consult the council solicitor. The latter’s advice was that I needed permission from living family members featured in the file if I was to be allowed access to information about them. After that, I would not be able to have the file but could take photocopies from it.
- April 1997: I get signed letters from my brother and father, giving their permission for me to see anything about them that is written in my file. I then send the letters on to Social Services.
- May 1997: I receive a reply from the Director, confirming receipt of the letters and asking me to ring her secretary to make an appointment for a meeting in July.
- July 1997: I am not able to meet with the Director, but meet with the Principal Officer, Children’s Division, instead. He shows me the file, allows me to indicate which bits I would like photocopying (about 60% of it) and promises to do so and post them to me. I notice that references on the file to people other than my brother and father have been tippexed out.
- I get the photocopied pages (about 60 of them; reviews; progress sheets, important letters).
Reading the file, I learn more about my mother, who had lived in a mental hospital since I was three and died when I was seventeen. I also learn more about my father and various other matters and am reminded of things I’d forgotten.
In my case, I was eventually satisfied, but I needed to be persistent in accessing my file and I can understand why some people give up.
One of the best examples of social services practice on files access came from when I was helping to run a leaving care group in Norfolk in the early 1990s. One young man in his early 20s wanted to access his file after hearing about my experience. He had spent almost his whole childhood in care. It took a few phone calls and letters, which I helped him with. Eventually, he got a series of appointments with a social worker to go through his file in stages and be able to ask any questions about it. This ended with him being given a full or almost full copy of the file. I know he appreciated that experience and found it rewarding.
There is clearly a need for some bureaucracy in all this, but it is off-putting and takes time. The rewards in my case were priceless, but it helps to have support, encouragement and persistence. Many adults who were in care as children have to go through this process alone if they don’t know anyone who understands why it matters so much. Even many social workers would struggle to understand why, if my house burnt down tomorrow, the three things I’d grab on the way out would be my photograph collection, my letters and my social services file. So much of my life is bound up in those photocopied papers. I first realised just how much when I visited a girlfriend’s parents when aged 21. They told many stories about her childhood, shared knowledge that she could access at any time. It was a living, oral family history and the basis of her sense of identity. By comparison, my own childhood story had massive gaps. My file helped to fill a few of those gaps.
NB: any correspondence on this subject can be addressed to me via my email.