Reflections on accessing care records and supporting good recording

Published: 12/03/2021

These two podcasts explore the emotional impact of receiving care files, the importance of child-centred recording, and provide suggestions of how practitioners can implement good recording.

Miriam Antcliffe, Research and Development Officer at Research in Practice, speaks to John-george and Darren* who share their personal stories of accessing their care files as adults. In these two podcasts, they explore the emotional impact of receiving their care files, the importance of child-centred recording, and they provide some suggestions of how practitioners can implement good recording.

John-george also discusses his experiences accessing his care recordings and what should be considered in chronologies in a connected blog.

Part one – Accessing your care file

In part one, John-george and Darren describe the emotional journey of accessing their care file as an adult.


This is a Research in Practice podcast. Supporting evidence informed practice with children and families, young people and adults.  

Mim: I'm Mim Antcliffe and I'm from Research in Practice and today I'm joined by John-george and Darren who are going to speak to me about their experiences of accessing their care records. At Research in Practice, all our work is underpinned by a triad of sources that make up evidence-informed practice and as part of that, the voice of people who've experienced services is a really important part of that. Both of these people also have experience in terms of as practitioners and in their links with research and they're going to explain that later in the podcast. So, John-george, would you like to introduce yourself?  

John-george: So, hi. My name's John-george Nicholson. I'm 42-years-old, married. I've got two children and I think they call me an expert by experience which basically means I grew up in care in the 80s and 90s.  

Darren: My name is Darren Coyne. Much like John, I grew up in the care system, the 70s and 80s. I work in a field of care leavers as it were, supporting care leavers but also, I'm care experienced myself. I guess that's my input mainly in today's podcast  

[Accessing care records] 

Mim: So, we're delighted to speak to you both today and I guess my first question would be about… John-george, can you tell me a little bit about… Thinking back to when you first thought about accessing your records and how that came about.  

John-george: So, I remember this very, very clearly. I was living in the Midlands and I was working for a bank and I was on some fraud training and I was sitting in the bank watching the slides come up and then a slide came up about the Data Protection Act. And I remember seeing underneath the title that you had the right to access any personal information that was held about you. Now I had never considered my care experience or the records or anything like that, but suddenly that just sparked something in me and I suddenly thought, 'Ah, there must be records about me from when I was in care.' So, at this time, I was in my early twenties. I went home. I phoned up the social services department that I had been managed by, should I say, and I spoke to a woman who said she would look into it and get back to me and she took my details and that was the last I heard from her. And then about three months later I'd completely forgotten about the request. I was on my way to work, literally rushing out the door, and ran into the postman, signed something quickly, stuffed it in my bag - the package that he gave me - ran for the bus and jumped on the bus on the way to work. And that was a long bus journey, about an hour and I suddenly remembered that I had this package in my bag and I opened it up. And I remember I was sitting on the top deck at the front and it was still dark outside because it was winter, pouring down with rain and I open up this white package and suddenly find this red A4 ring binder folder and this was my file.  

This was my care file so I didn't have a telephone call to say it was coming. Just a few months later, here it was and I opened it and on the first page was the chronology of all my moves while I was in care. About fifteen different moves. The dates, the addresses, the people I was with and I started reading through this file. 126 pages. And that was my first experience with the file. So, obtaining the records, you know, I never had any grand schemes or any real hopes or expectations. It was purely… I was curious. That was it. I went to university after I left care and to be honest, I wanted to put my care experience at that point behind me. I didn't want people to really know that I was in care. I didn't want to engage with that time. At that time, I saw it as a very negative experience which is very different than how I see it now. So, it was easy for me to create that space where I could stuff the care experience away from me. So, I didn't really think about it much. It was only that trigger from the… seeing that slide for the data protection act that brought that back and even then, after I made the call, after a week or so, again, I put the care experience back in that box again. So, I didn't really think about it and at that time it was easy to switch on and switch off. However, when I got the care file that really changed a lot of that because of what was in there.  

Mim: And Darren, can you remember what made you first think about accessing your files?  

Darren: It was, kind of, similar really in that it was quite an accident. I'd not talked about being in care to anyone for about 37, 38 [years]. Completely kept it to myself. I don't think it was shame. It might have been shame but it was probably a lack of understanding from myself as to why it was, why it happened. It was all a bit of a whirlwind. Spent a lot of time in and out of care, up and down the country and then you grow up, you leave care. A lot of negative experiences as a young man. You start to then develop a life and as you do so you, kind of, put it behind you and move on and make positive strides in life. I'd been working in the Racial Equality Council and ended up getting made redundant and then I set up my own project which was a youth project. Doing some football coaching. Working with people of a young age in a new white community and some divided communities, trying to do some community cohesion stuff. Then the funding for that came to an end and I find myself, kind of, at a loose end and I'm really into like… if I see an injustice I want to, kind of, do something about it and that's what motivates me in my life and I'm sat around and I'm looking for jobs. I'm looking for opportunities. I'm scouring the internet. You're reading the news. Me and my laptop. You know, it became almost like my therapist as it were because I was sat there every day all of the time. I also started to write, and as I started to write I would just talk into my laptop and all of this stuff starts coming out which I'd, kind of, obviously stored away but it had been quite dormant.  

And in the process of that, looking around the internet, and just like John-george I just came across this thing that said local authorities council for government otherwise keep information about you. And it never really… I don't know why it never sprung to mind before but as soon as I'd seen that I thought, well, someone's got some information about me then. That's going to be interesting. Considering the context of what I was doing at that particular time and where I was in my life. So, I thought I'd go about trying to make an application and I did. I have a criminal justice background as an ex-offender so I wanted to know all the information that they might hold about me but also what local authorities, so I made all these applications. Subject access requests and they were telling me I had to fill out forms which angered me really. You know, you've got information about me and you're making me fill out a form to ask you for it. I just want to make a phone call and tell you I want it. I just want you to give to me. I don't want to go through some bureaucratic exercise in the process. So, I applied for it and pretty much like John-george… unlike John-george, I'd not forgotten about it. It was in the forefront of my mind that I'd made the application but didn't know when to expect it and a postman turned up one day with a big brown envelope and had me sign for it and it happened to be my care file.  

I opened this brown envelope which was probably about this thick. Maybe six, 700 pages. The front of it was much like John-george’s. It was a chronology. My date of birth and then it goes through the times that I was in care, when I weren't in care, when I went home and I went back into care. Did it from places that I went to but then I started to read through the file and there's all these… what I now know to be redactions but I never knew what the word redaction meant at the time. I just saw all these missing parts of this information and it made me angry. I was like how very dare you in the first instance keep information about me from my time in your care, which by the way, it wasn't pleasant and then when you've kept that information put me through a bureaucratic process of having to ask you for it. And then when you finally get into it, you dare to send it through the postman and you decided what I can and what I can't read. You're treating me like a kid in care and it reminded me of the way they treated me when I was in care i.e., they give you access to certain bits of information about you and you get involved in meetings that are about you but most of which you don't understand and the conclusions to most of the meetings, not the conclusions that you've come to yourself. The file, kind of, almost reinforced much of those… the system. The local authority owns all of this information about... and as an adult, as a grown man, it has the permission and digression to decide how much or how little of that information I am entitled to.  

So, I immediately got on the phone, of course, to the local authority but couldn't find the right person to speak to and there was nobody in the local authority. I have applied for my file a number of times since then from that one particular council but unfortunately you get moved around a lot as a kid in care. So, I've applied for files from lots of different authorities up and down the country and got bits and bats from, and I also went to apply for my hospital records. My hospital records, which are very different to my GP (General Practitioner) records. There would be significantly more information than my social care file was ever going to give me because it documents lots of abuse that I weren't even aware of in my life.  

[Support when accessing care records] 

Mim: The sense that I'm getting is that not just in terms of the kind of content and being supported in reading the files but how far would you say that you were supported in actually understanding that process of how to get the files?  

Darren: Oh, there wasn't any understanding on how to get the file. It was, as I say, it was an accidental discovery of mine online. Filled out the forms, made the applications and then once that application goes, once that form goes, you then become the subject of bureaucracy and you have to let the bureaucratic process take fold and unfold until eventually you end up with this information. It's got a cover letter on it. My file had a cover letter on it from the council saying we've received your application. We've processed it. This is the information that you're entitled to. Talked a little bit about the third-party redactions and stuff but bear in mind, never before had I ever even considered the fact that I could apply for this information, let alone that it existed. I'd not really talked much or thought much about my care experience and all of a sudden, I was presented with this big bundle of information and some wording on the letter that as far as I was concerned was just couched in legislative language, none of which I understood at the time.  

John-george: It's such a unique moment in someone's life that most people don't get to experience this. That you might get sent a document or a collection of documents that is going to allow you to suddenly download your whole, or a big chunk of your childhood. Some of the most difficult experiences in one go and you might have received this file but nobody has prepared you for it. Nobody has called you up. Nobody has offered to visit you or you to visit them. Possibly offered that you could talk to someone that's gone through the same thing. Giving you some do's and don'ts or any type of, kind of that level of support which I know has changed now in some areas but then you experience this moment where you start reading… and I'm sure Darren can agree, you start reading through these moments in your life and there are just so many pages of moments in your life that you just suddenly unleash these emotions. So many emotions at one time that you would never experience normally. You know, obvious emotions of pain and anger and sadness and really difficult where you definitely need, I would say, all sorts of support and preparation and when that's not there and you're left to deal with it alone that can have some massive ramifications for people. And it's not just about support when you first access those files. It's how you engage with those files from the point of receiving them. So how I feel about the file now twenty years on is very different then when I first received it and, you know, I've never… the only support actually that I've ever had around the file was when I got involved in the MIRRA project and I started to meet people like Darren and other people that had gone through this process.  

And it was this, kind of, moment of sharing experience that I'd never had before and it was so cathartic because you'd say something and someone would go, 'Oh, that happened to me,' And I suddenly felt this kinship and this understanding that has almost like helped me process the final elements of that file and it took twenty odd years for me to meet people to really help me and funnily enough it was other people, other care leavers. And it's only in the revisiting of the file that I could really start to piece together a story and you have to do a lot of work yourself like Darren said, because there's a lot of memories in there that come from outside of the words and so part of putting that story together is you do a lot of work yourself. And who you are plays a big part in that. I mean, I've gone through some big changes since I've got the file. You know, I have two children now which is really… it affected me again reading the files as a father because there’s a divorce now, since I've had my children in the sense. And you don't need children to have this but I sometimes look at that file and I see a boy, not me and I see a different person that's going through all these things and I can almost see it as an outsider. And some of it is fascinating as a story. It really is. Like I said before, not many people have a document quite like this in such detail but it is a fragmented story and it is multiple versions of a story.  

It's not totally me. They’re interpretations of me and it takes a long time to try and find what you think is your version in there and I'd say the critical thing, the critical problem with my file is there's not much of me in it as in my voice. I'm pretty silent. I may appear on a couple of pages. My actual voice, you know, word for word and when I read those bits, they are really powerful for me because it really is me talking to me and I can really unpick how I felt at that time. Most of my voice is through other people's words and they're speaking for me and I think it's a real shame in 126 pages that there's not more of my voice. I think sometimes adults forget what it was like to be a child and to remember what it was like to, kind of, look out into the world of adults. You know, kids work a lot of stuff out. They've got a lot of stuff to say and, you know, you want to give them the chance to talk and this file did not do that unfortunately. Not much at all and that's probably the saddest part about the file really. I mean, it would be nice to have seen some of the reports at the time and being able to respond to those reports. I understand that social workers are in a very difficult position because you're dealing with children and how much information do you let them see and how much information do you need to keep back.  

I totally get that conundrum but there can be a version of some of these reports that could've been given to me as a child to give my opinion on and captured how I felt about things at the time. That would've given it more of that nuance or at least some of that nuance. Sadly, that's missing. It's not there.  

Darren: I also would add to that in terms of the reason why we want our file. You know, curiosity should be reason enough.  

Mim: Yes.  

[Reflecting positive experiences] 

Darren: Curiosity into… I mean, your own life has got to be the most fascinating thing in your life, of course. So, to be able to look back and reflect and ponder over the way in which different people in your life as child perceived you and wrote about you in terms of your development and your understanding. I know we're talking a lot here about… often when we talk about care and growing up in care and experiences of care, we talk with a negative connotation with the assumption that because you were in care everything about that must be negative well yes. Going into care is a negative and unique experience and people go into care for many, many different reasons but whilst you're in care you do have moments of joy. You do have moments when you play. You do have moments when you have fun with your friends. I got taken off to Holland three times to walk the marches in commemoration of things that had happened in the past. My education in terms of my social education and my development and my growth as a teenager and all of them things are joyous things. When you get your file and you read through it, as much as you recognise and you're reading lots of negative. Actually, what it does is it takes your mind back to a particularly place. You can see the environment. You can see the institution.  

You can see the faces of the children of the adults of the staff of the people that were here in your life at the time and sometimes that will give you a positive reflection of what your life was. So, we should also, you know, recognise and make the important point that accessing files is often and in the most part about curiosity. I want to know and I don't just want to know negative things. I want to know the whole picture. I want to know everything. I want to go back and I want to remember.  

Mim: Did the care records themselves highlight those positive experiences or are you saying that they triggered your own memories of positive experiences?  

Darren: Yes, I think that's an important question. No. There were members of staff and the way the files were written, in my own experience, my own file, are extraordinary negative. They speak about the negative aspects of me. They speak about the deviant parts of me. They speak about the difficult parts of me. There are parts in my file when members of staff relate me and my behaviour to the people that had abused and neglected me which was the result of me going into care. Behaviours of demonstration of so and so, to suggest that I'd turned out like the people that had been abusing me. To be able to read all of that and see all of that is negative and to be able to see the way in which-, because back in the day they would write about the way you behaved on a Saturday morning so I've got lots and lots of reports in my file where a member of staff has come on duty and at the end of their shift has written down what they perceived my behaviour and how I've behaved and how I've responded to them. And then another member of staff has done the same the next day and I've got reams and reams of that and when you're reading through it, it takes your mind back and you can remember which members of staff and you can understand why them particularly members of staff are writing in that particular… because your relationship with them would've been good or bad or indifferent or otherwise but what that does, as you're reading all of that, if you've got the mental capacity to be able to read above and beyond that and say, 'Okay, that's what your perspective is of me. That's what my perspective is of me.'  

I remember myself very different to how you're reflecting me there and that allows you to then start thinking about some more positive memories and putting yourself in a more positive light so you have to have some strength of character. You have to have some resilience. You have to have the tenacity to be able to read that negative stuff and then get back up and say no actually. I see things in a very different way. I appreciate what you've said there and thank you for the information. It's nice to know but me? I will interpret that very differently from my own perspective and remember that altercation or that incident or that thing that you're talking about might not be exactly as you've just written it. And I wish I would have known what you'd written at the time because I would've questioned it then because it was probably quite different in my mind. And when it does it is it highlights the way in which sometimes the people that are looking after you in the care system make assumptions about you. Perceive your identity and your actions very differently to how they're meant to be perceived. So, what I'm saying is, as a child in care your experiences of it is very different to what the people that are looking after you might assume your experience in care is and your behaviours and your challenges. Recognise those behaviours and challenges that are sometimes given a very deviant label whereas what they should be doing is giving a very traumatised label and then that then develops a more different response from the practitioners working with you.  

I hope and I see sometimes, you know, through the work that I do, that the care system has changed significantly from when I was a boy and maybe trauma is recognised much more above and beyond deviant.  

John-george: Exactly the same for me as Darren in that… that thing about what does it capture? It is quite negative. It is highlighting the bad behaviour or… it lacks analysis though. It never really asks why? Why did you scream at someone or why did you have to be held down for an hour? It captures all these very tough, negative moments but it doesn't really dig much deeper. It's like collecting who said, what's said, when something happened and just like Darren, it triggers… it still did trigger lots of positive memories for me that aren't in there but I found them myself based on what I was reading. So, it's a real treasure trove, the file but it took a bit of time for me to get to that stage. I had to go through a more difficult stage of sifting through on the surface level if that makes sense because it doesn't have a lot of those joyous moments that Darren mentions and it doesn't talk a great deal about how much I love football. I was an avid comic book collector. How much I loved new jack swing or hip-hop. Like you say, going swimming, what I liked to eat. You know, these little nuances, these little moments that make up a life. They're just these big blocks of… it lacks the nuance. That's the problem with the file for me. But I've managed to find that myself over time and it takes a lot of growing up. It's taken me a lot of growing up to find that space to engage with the file and it has taken a lot of visits.  

It's funny because I knew I was going to be speaking to you today. I started reading it again this morning and for one of the first times and I've never had this before. I started to see the file from the social workers point of view. I started to imagine the social worker writing out these reports as a human being. You know, they might have had a family. They're human beings. They're coming into this situation and they're probably going to do six more visits today but they've got to write this report so they've got to quickly capture certain information so they might be tired. It might be late. They might be trying to do six files in the evening, so what are they able to capture and it, kind of, humanises the social worker but I've had this for 20 years and I'm only thinking about this stuff now. And it's funny. As I read one particular social worker, her reports, slowly if you start to put them altogether you start to get a little sense of who she is but I've never looked through that prism before. It was only literally this morning that I suddenly was flipping around and thinking what are their motivations? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? But because of the distance between yourself and your social worker often they're not like a human being. A bit like your teacher and, sadly, the file doesn't capture them as humans. You know, it would almost be nice if I knew a bit more about the social worker. They're so far away. They're so distant.  

They're behind this bureaucratic wall, that they're not human so they're not in there. You have to dig them out. 20 years later after being involved in the MIRRA project and hearing Darren's story about accessing his files multiple times led me to contact my authority again quite recently to access my files again. Just to see if something new comes up and I've not gone through the full process yet but even when I emailed them, the email that I got back was so human that it was… it was not a template. It was very almost causal but still professional from someone offering to clearly-, to send me the information that the form I needed to fill out which was quite brief. Also, with the phone numbers to say if I want to talk to someone If I want someone to be there when I get the file but there was just something in the tone of this email that I felt like I was being treated as a person and it was very open that it made such a big difference. That's very simple. That's someone writing an email but that goes a long way, things like that. Beyond the legislation and all those other types of things. I'll tell you what. The care system generally is this issue around this humanity. Sometimes there's a real lack of humanity and it doesn't come necessarily from a bad place because we're all trying to… most people in here are trying to do their best so-, the directors of the social services, the social workers, the carers.  

There's a bunch of people trying their best but there are sometimes things in the system that make that difficult, that we're actually scared to give ourselves over as human beings because that might be seen as something that can be manipulated or exposed and that's are real shame. And I don't know how you get around that in a systems way, but on an individual level we get to choose how we interact with people, right? That's a personal choice for people in care. It's difficult when you're a child, don't get me wrong, but for social workers and for people that are involved in the accessing or processing of records.  


Thanks for listening to this Research in Practice podcast. We hope you've enjoyed it. Why not share with your colleagues and let us know your thoughts on Twitter? Tweet us @researchIP.   

Part two – Recommendations for recording

In part two, John-george and Darren make their recommendations to practitioners about good recording.


 This is a Research in Practice podcast supporting evidence informed practice with children and families, young people and adults.  

[Recommendations for practice] 

Mim: So, we've spoken quite a bit about both of your experiences. We've touched on some recommendations for practice but I'd like to speak a little bit more about that.  

John-george: It needs to move to a sense of co-development. You know, these files should be something that are co-produced and, you know, it's 2020 now. You've got platforms that just simply didn't exist when Darren and I, who are getting older in the tooth, that they just didn't exist and there must be ways of things like capturing certificates, capturing photos, capturing voice. Online platforms. All sorts of things that there's no excuse, no. There's no excuse from an application point of view I would say.  

Darren: And I completely agree. Listen, you know, I've got a 28-year-old daughter, as I said, and she knows so much more about technology than I could ever imagine to know and young people invariably without question are able to use technology and they could probably teach the social workers a thing or two in terms of how to record and what to record if they were given the permission. It's about respecting children and carers individuals in their own ability to understand their own experiences of care and it reflects a little bit back about what I said before. Much of what's written in my files doesn't necessarily reflect the way that I saw myself in care. It's a reflection of how the practitioners saw the way that I was in care. If that doesn't persuade anyone that there's a need to allow the child's voice to come into the files then nothing else will.  

Mim: So that links back to what you were saying before about how much information it's possible to share with a child or young person at the time and also John-george, you're talking about four practitioners who are recording now in their jobs to be thinking about how do we do that in a way that is co-constructed with children and young people. And also, Darren, I like your idea about seeing them as experts, not only in their own lives but you're right. Often children and young people are far better at accessing technology and using that to their full capabilities. Is there anything else that you would like to say to people who are involved in creating these records today?  

Darren: I guess a simple thing would be when you write something in a file about child, take it to that child and let them read it and say, 'This is a reflection on our meeting the last time that we met. Do you agree?' Simple as that really.  

John-george: For me, it's very much that when they put pen to paper that's permanent. So, when they create that file, that file will be seen. It's likely to be seen at some point, not just by that child because they can assess it now at twelve but as an adult and as an adult at 20 and 30 and 40 and 50. Those words will be poured over. Now, that's difficult because I don't want to suddenly make people freeze, but it's just to take a breath whenever you write these reports. Just to think about the person that you're writing the report about and something that really stuck with me that Darren said, which is really critical, is that let's not forget we're talking about children and they're in a traumatic situation. So, never ever forget that but also never forget those small little bits that make up a life like I said before. Capture some of those more positive moments. The joyous moments as Darren called them, and put them in there. I know there is a sense that you have to be compliant. Every form still has a purpose and you must be compliant to that. I get that, but that doesn't stop you adding that, kind of, texture into those forms so that when you put them all together… and I'm sitting there when I'm 21, 22, that I get a much richer sense of my life through the reports that you've written and that you've taken the care to see me as a person and see me, and not just my behaviour or not just that thing that I did but you tried to capture an essence of who I am.  

Don't worry. I can unpick most of it and I can put it together and I'll create the story but could you just give me some good material. Some more material. Not just negative material and, you know, there are moments in my file where that comes out and it's really, really powerful. The most powerful part are those, kind of, gems, those more positive gems. That's what I would say. Just take a breath before you write.  

Mim: A few more things that I wanted to pick up on there were… I was just thinking about what you said Darren about that simple message of practitioners going back to the child or young person and saying, 'This is what I wrote about our last meeting. Do you agree?' And forgive me, I can't remember which one of you mentioned it earlier but you were saying it might have been that you didn't have the same opinion and how would you like to see that reflected in a file?  

Darren: I think it was me that I said sometimes they'd written about me and it didn't reflect the way… so I've read what some of the staff were saying about me in the day about my beard on a Saturday morning and a Sunday afternoon. Different members of staff are writing about me in different ways. I'm reading it and I'm thinking ‘You're a bit cheeky actually saying all that long because I don't remember you coming to me and saying to me what did you think about it?’ And maybe that member of staff is someone I didn't get along with me and who I never got along with, but each children's home that I was in as far as I remember had a supervisor and the supervisor's job should be there for… maybe, for example, if someone's going to write a log about me in a children's zone, I don't just want that member of staff to do that subjectively because that's going to be… it's impossible for that person to be completely objective considering there might be an altercation between you and that member of staff that particular day, so which should that member of staff not be able to write something in a file and then supervisor pick up that file and bring it back to the child and say, 'Look, you know, this is the thing that's been written. Would you agree and do you want to give your perspective?' Why should we give them two sides of the story as it were? And as John-george has just said once the pen goes to paper it's there forever.  

42 as John is, 48 as I am, and you come back and you look at it again and you're reflecting on it. You're going to look and you're going to see someone's particular perspective. If you can see your own perspective at the time as well that gives you another important reflection. Massively, massively, massively important and as I said it might help you not have to draw upon your own positive memories because you might be able to write a positive memory into your file yourself as a child so when you do become an adult you go back and you look at it you can see it. Don't assume that all you need to do is write into a file. Photographs, certificates, achievements, all them things that we are… I mean, getting in your pyjamas and jumping in the swimming pool and getting a break from that swimming pool is an important part of life. You know, and it might seem like something that's not important but it's massively, massively important. Massively important so don't forget them, kind of, things because they offer a real important human touch  

John-george: Yes, there's not enough celebration in this file, and there is a lot to celebrate. There was a lot in my childhood to celebrate that isn't captured there. So definitely there needs to be more of those positive, positive moments for sure  

Mim: So, it's about it being okay to incorporate multiple perspectives.  

John-george: Sorry, I was just going to add. It's okay to have conflict. I think that's a reality of our lives, isn't it? We all look at things in different ways. We bring our own baggage to every moment of our life so I've got no problem with there being conflict in the file. Actually, I'd celebrate that conflict. It's just you need to have the child's voice in that mix because at least then I have the opportunity to give my version. And, you know, there are times when I look back on the file where I interpret the situation like this but now as an adult I complete-, oh, god, what an idiot I was being and I was being an eight-year-old but just capture that voice at the time and then let me call myself an idiot later or let me call you an idiot later on. You know, let's have all those… that mish mash of conversations and ideas. I don't see a problem with conflict.  

[The power of language] 

Mim: Sure. Another thing that I was thinking about is how language changes over time.  

John-george: That's a whole other podcast.  

Mim: It is a whole other podcast.  

John-george: The power of language.  

Mim: I guess I was just wanting to pick up just very briefly then about would you have any messages for practitioners who are perhaps, you know, feel a bit frozen about wanting to do the right thing but realising that perhaps language that we use today and that is seen as very acceptable in 20 years' time may be viewed differently.  

John-george: So, I've got examples of that in my files. So, my dad's black. He comes from Jamaica and this was written, some of it in the 1980s and some of the language, a way to describe my dad, wouldn't be appropriate today. And the way that they… there's some viewpoints of him that I think are probably unfair and they're based on the time period in which they were written. Now I understand that. When I see some of the comments that are written, they were written in the 1980s and people had a certain viewpoint in the 1980s. I'm just generalising here to make a point. I get that. I've not got a great problem for me personally with that. I understand it and I should be given the opportunity to, kind of, make my own views on that. I don't want to handcuff social workers sitting writing reports because they're trying to think of what will be the politically correct term in 30 years' time because there's a way that identity politics shift in the way that language shifts so quickly and it's one of the great wonders of language. Just do your best in the time that we're at. If you can be fair about that and do your best that's all you can ask for. The thing I'm scared of is people writing reports that are just sterile and that are just form filling exercises. I don't want that. I would rather there be some… dare I say, some creativity in there. I mean, it would be nice to have seen some of the reports at the time and being able to respond to those reports.  

I understand that social workers are in a very difficult position because you’re dealing with children and how much information do you let them see and how much information do you need to keep back. I totally get that conundrum but there can be a version of some of these reports that could've been given to me as a child to give my opinion on, you know, and captured how I felt about things at the time. So that would have given it more of that nuance or at least some of that nuance. Sadly, that's missing. It's not there. It's no different as being a parent, the conversation you have to have with yourself. Well, I have to have with myself quite often is to remember that my kids are children and trying to put them first and get out of my own head sometimes and sometimes I can make it about me and I forget. I'm asking the same thing as a social worker. If sometimes to say with all the clutter that it is to be a social worker and there's a lot to think about. I totally understand that. Like Darren, it's just every now and again to, kind of, shift yourself and put yourself in their shoes. Actually, just remember what it was like when you were a child. Maybe that's a good way of thinking about it. Remember being a kid yourself and what you would want a social worker to do for you.  

[Recording why a child came into the care system] 

Mim: That's really helpful. And finally, I was going to ask that… you know, we've talked about including the voice of the child and so on, and we also spoke a little bit about how things to do with third parties and different people have influence on your life. And I'm sure you're both familiar that there are times when social workers might have to write some quite difficult things and how that is addressed so that it's made clear. For example, the reasons why a child came into the care system. Do you have any recommendations for people who are recording those, kind of, quite challenging things nowadays in a way that is clear but also sensitive?  

Darren: You know, one of the first things that people say to me when they're coming to apply for the files is they want to know why they went into care because they want to know the truth and the believe that social care file is going to tell them the truth. Because the mum, the dad, the brother, the sister, the auntie, the uncle, it's full of conjecture sometimes, and sometimes the care system is an embarrassing thing within the context of a family. So, trying to address it most honestly is not the best place to go in terms of your family. Your file is the place to go to get an entirely objective, clear honest understanding. So that's what you need to do when you write the reasons why someone goes into care. Be completely objective and honest and clear when you're writing down the reasons why someone's gone into the care system.  

John-george: I don't think that's a difficult thing at all. I think that out of everything we've talked about. That's the easiest part. It's just be fair. As Darren said, be objective. Write it out. Looking through my care file, I've had to, kind of, dig that out but it could've been straightforward and clear. That shouldn't be difficult.  

Mim: And Darren could you tell me a little bit about to what extent reading the files gave you a sense of your story?  

Darren: It did really. It opened up loads more memories, all of which were not negative as I just explained before. Many are positive memories and that's because I chose to do that. Not everyone's got, you know, the mental capacity to be able to say, okay, look, let me think about this in a positive way as well, and that's why support is so important. You need someone there that's maybe a little bit objective. Not so close to you to be able to help you understand that there were positives in your life as well as negatives because you can't carry negatives throughout your entire life. You'll just destroy yourself in doing so.  

Mim: Well, I think you've both really beautifully brought together your own personal experiences. Darren, your professional experiences and both of your experiences as part of that research project to really bring to life why it is so important for… you know, some really key messages for both people wanting to access their records and for people who might be involved in supporting them to do so. And I think you've also really brought to life some really key messages for people who are involved in making records today and some really key things for them to consider. So, thank you both.  

John-george: Thanks. It's great to have the opportunity. Thank you.  

Darren: Thank you.  


Thanks for listening to this Research in Practice podcast. We hope you've enjoyed it. Why not share with your colleagues and let us know your thoughts on Twitter? Tweet us @researchIP.   


Talking points

These podcasts look at:

  • The process of accessing your care file.
  • Reading your care file, and its emotional impact.
  • The significance of redaction and not hearing your voice within your care records.
  • Promoting child-centred record keeping.
  • The importance of tone and language within records.

Resources that are mentioned in these podcasts

Reflective questions

Here are reflective questions to stimulate conversation and support practice: 

  1. What approaches do you currently use to promote child-centred recording within your practice?
  2. What are the key messages from this podcast that you might take forward in your organisation or team?


*We’re sad to say that, in May 2021 after working with us on this Podcast Darren died, far too young. We are glad to have had the chance to work with Darren and share his powerful reflections and we hope practitioners and workforce development teams will honour his memory by using this Podcast to support improved practice in recording and sharing care leavers’ case records. Read more about Darren’s life and legacy

Professional Standards

PQS:KSS - Child and family assessment | Analysis, decision-making, planning and review | Communication | Relationships and effective direct work | Developing excellent practitioners | Confident analysis and decision-making | Purposeful and effective social work | Developing excellent practitioners