What records look like, and the impact they might have on you
This page explains what care records will physically look like when you receive them, and prepares you for some of the troubling and confusing aspects of this.
How will they arrive?
You can choose to receive your records in paper or digitally. If you opt for a digital version it is likely to be delivered to you on a USB stick or a compact disc. Some organisations can email you a link to download it from a secure location, but this is unusual. If you opt for a paper copy your records will come in the post or via courier delivery. They may arrive unannounced, and many people report receiving boxes or envelopes without any warning.
Some organisations will give you the option of receiving your records in person, with the support of a social worker or other representative. They may invite you to visit an office or come to your home. It is entirely up to you whether you wish to do this, as it isn’t right for everybody. However, if you trust the organisation involved it may help you navigate your records and means that a person is on hand to answer any questions.
What will they look like?
The first thing you are likely to notice is that your records are long. Modern care files can be a 1000 pages or more, although some older records may be much shorter and contain less. You may find they have been organised into folders for you, but they may also be in loose pages.
Generally they will be in chronological order, but this might be backwards (i.e. the most recent records first) or forwards (I.e. the earliest records first). In some cases there will be a summary or chronology sheet which will set out your placements and important dates. However, some people do report very muddled records and you may find they are disordered.
Records often contain lots of standardised forms, such as assessment or review forms. This can be helpful as you can quickly find the sections that are of most interest to you. However, it can also be frustrating as there can be lots of repeated information and duplicate versions.
If you were in care after 2000 it is very likely that your records will be mostly typed print-outs and easy to read. Before 2000, and certainly before 1990, there are likely to be lots of hand-written pages. Some of these can be very hard to read because of poor handwriting. Faded photocopy paper or transfer forms can also be difficult to understand because they are faded.
Withheld information (redaction)
Your records will probably have had information removed or blanked out. This is formally known as ‘redaction’. The Data Protection Act gives you the right to access information about yourself, but it also protects the privacy of other people in your records. The legislation calls these other people ‘third parties’. Information about them is often ‘redacted’ or blacked out from your records. What is removed will depend on the organisation that holds your records. Some organisations remove lots of information, while other organisations are more open. We have a guide to ‘redaction’ if you want to know more.
If you feel that the ‘redactions’ from your records are unfair, wrong or hurtful then you can appeal or request further information.
Understanding care records
The records you receive will vary in content and type depending on when, where and how long you were in care. Social work has changed a lot over the past 80 years, and so have the documents that social workers are required to write.
Broadly speaking, after 1990 social workers had set procedures to follow for assessment, planning and placements. There was also a lot more emphasis on evidence and being objective. As a result records from the 1990s and 2000s tend to be more standardised and also longer.
Prior to 1990 social workers had a lot more freedom and recording varies much more in terms of detail and length. Some records from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are very rich because social workers were encouraged to write lengthy narratives. However, these are also more likely to be subjective and prejudicial. Before 1970 records will probably be shorter and more fragmented, but this is not always the case.
The most important thing to know is that your records are limited in what they can tell you. They are a snapshot of what the people who wrote them thought and you may not agree with them. Social workers, foster carers, health workers and teachers will have contributed their perspectives on you and your family. Some will have written fair, detailed records, but others may be patchy or judgemental. Earlier records may have racist, sexist and homophobic language and it is not unusual to find some of the things that have been written offensive or upsetting. Occasionally records are also factually wrong. For example, some people report dates of birth or the spellings of names being incorrect.
You have the right to request that amendments or additions are made to your records to reflect your own knowledge and experiences.
Your records may not answer all your questions?
Records have generally been written for the social workers and the organisations they worked for. As a result they will focus on what they perceived to be most important or relevant at the time and might miss out things that are important to you. You are likely to find lots of information about care proceedings, placements and plans. However, information about holidays, friends, school events, birthdays and other personal memories may not be included. Photographs, certificates and other personal items like letters are only present in around 1 in 10 files. However, you will find out a lot about what was happening ‘behind the scenes’, which will help to understand what happened when and why decisions were made.
Abbreviations, acronyms and jargon are common in all records, and earlier documents may also be handwritten. If it is unclear then you can ask the organisation who sent your records to explain what something means, as they have a legal responsibility to make sure you can understand the information they hold about you.
Records tell your story from other people’s point of view
Your records were created for the organisation that looked after you. Depending upon when you were in care they may not have expected you to ever read them. As a result they may not focus on the things that are most important to you. Instead they will contain a lot of information about social work and legal processes. They may have lots of duplicated forms and repetitive information, but not have what you were hoping to find. This can be very frustrating, especially if you don’t have anyone who can answer your questions.
Care leavers who have accessed their files often say that their voice and opinions are missing from the records. Meetings and events, and even your feelings are presented from the point of view of whoever is writing the record. They may have seen things very differently to you and you may feel misrepresented or misunderstood. It’s important to bear in mind that the records are not ‘true’ but only one version of events. Your version is equally important.
Photographs or personal items
In fact, on average only about 1 in 10 care files has a photograph or other personal items. It may be helpful to ask directly for these things if you are hoping to find them, so that you can be told in advance if there are any. You have the right to ask to be sent the originals, if they survive.
You may not be able to take it all in at once
Receiving your files can be nerve-wracking and exciting. Care leavers talk about wanting to immediately sit down and read them through without stopping. However, files are often very long and complex, and working through them may take time. Some people never read their whole file, or tackle it in stages over a number of years. You may need to come back to all or part of it many times. Each time your understanding and perception of it will change.
Accessing your records is emotional
Many people talk about the highs and lows of reading their care file. On the one hand you might be reminded of happy times, or come to understand what happened to you better. In the long term you might find it very therapeutic. Some care leavers, for example, have said that accessing their records helped them to accept that they weren’t to blame for what happened to them. But in the short term it can bring back negative feelings and difficult memories. Some people find that it affects their work and relationships, or can leave them feeling sad and depressed. We recommend thinking about what support you might need during this time.
Accessing your records is a journey.
You may find that receiving your records is the start of a journey rather than the end of one. Care leavers who requested their records many years ago still find themselves going back to them. Some have used them as inspiration for creative writing or writing biographies. Others have decided to contact family or friends after long periods of separation. Your experience will be individual to you.