Good practice in record-keeping in children’s social care

Published: 28/02/2022

Author: Professor Elizabeth Shepherd

In family settings stories, photographs and memory objects support narratives of identity and belonging.

However, children and young people in care often lack such narratives, especially where their experience has been complex, disrupted or traumatic. They may be unable to fill gaps in their memories or answer simple questions about their early lives, such as ‘why was I in care?’. This can lead to feelings of anger, frustration and guilt, and may have negative impacts on their sense of worth and belonging. Many care leavers turn to the records created about them by social workers and care providers to reconstruct personal histories: thousands of requests to view records for this purpose are made each year in England.

new Research in Practice briefing offers an overview research in children’s social care record-keeping, drawing on the views of care-experienced people and person-centred recording. This briefing discusses the complex legislative and regulatory landscape, including information rights under data protection law, offering valuable guidance on providing and supporting access to records, including best practice in redaction.

The Memory Identity Rights in Records Access (MIRRA) research project at University College London (UCL) explored information rights in the context of child social care in England, particularly from the perspective of care-experienced people who sought access to records about their childhood later in life. Co-produced with our third sector partners, The Care Leavers’ Association, and a group of care-experienced co-researchers, we collected data through interviews, focus groups and workshops with care-experienced adults, child social care practitioners, information managers and researchers. This data evidenced strong support for a fundamental shift towards participatory recording approaches in child social care settings.

Looked-after children are extensively scrutinised and documented, producing detailed care files. Our research showed that care records are critical to care-experienced people’s sense of identity and memory. Care leavers may have very few photographs, keepsakes or memory objects from childhood and they lack a chronology of their childhood, often compounding the trauma that they faced before they came into care.

Thousands of care leavers in England apply each year through the Data Protection Act to access their records. Often, they are disappointed with what can be found, face long waits to receive information, and, if files are made accessible to them, the records are heavily ‘redacted’ with information removed.

Recording and record-keeping systems are designed for the needs of the ‘corporate parent’ to document the services provided and decisions made by them, with a focus on risk management, and mandatory reporting to central government regulators.

MIRRA identified a range of preservation and access challenges associated with child social care recording systems. Most critically, however, the voices of the children themselves are rarely heard or recorded. Young people often don’t know what has been written in their files, and have little or no access to recording systems. Child social care recording reflects their broader experience of powerlessness and lack of self-determination over their own lives, an inequality that may have long-term impacts on personal history, identity and belonging.

Most of these records are now ‘born digital’, which is created as part of digital recording systems for social care. In addition, there are multiple proprietary digital systems in use for creating and controlling information. However, the implementation of participatory practices is currently hindered by the lack of appropriate software available.

During a follow-on project MIRRA+ in 2020-2021, we developed an open-source specification for a participatory recording system for use in child social care settings. A prototype based on the specification is now being developed by a group of academics and computer science students at UCL, to produce a diary app for use by children in care (13-18 year-olds).

This will enable them to record and keep their memories in a safe place to support the development of their identity now and throughout their lifetime.

Further information

Learn more about the MIRRA project.

Follow the MIRRA project and the UCL Department of Information Studies on Twitter.

Professor Elizabeth Shepherd

Professor Elizabeth Shepherd is Head of the Department of Information Studies at UCL. Her research interests are in archival science, rights in records and links between records management and information policy compliance. This includes the recent AHRC-funded project with care-experienced co-researchers MIRRA project.