Things to consider
This page talks you through some of the things you might want to consider before you start the process of accessing your care records.
If you’re looking at this site there’s a good chance you’re a care-experienced person searching for records relating to your childhood. You might also be interested in learning more about your family history, or you may be trying to reconnect with family members or former carers.
This might be something you have been meaning to do for many years or it might be a recent decision. It may be something you have discussed with friends and family, or something that you have kept private. Everyone’s journey to accessing their records is different.
However, many people give similar reasons for wanting to access their records, such as:
- Wanting to ‘fill in gaps’ in their life story, or put jumbled memories into order
- To understand the reasons why they were taken in care and the circumstances leading up to it
- To get a better picture of what happened to them and why certain decisions were made
- Confronting difficult or traumatic memories as part of moving on with their life
- To answer questions from their children, friends and family
- To make contact or re-establish a relationship with a family member or carer they have lost touch with
- Making a legal case for neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
You may also have other reasons or, in fact, no specific reason for wanting to see your records. You do not need to tell anyone else what your reasons are for accessing them.
Is it the right time?
You have the right to access your records whenever you feel ready to do so, and for any reason. However, you should bear in mind that the process can be difficult. Regardless of what you find, it’s likely to be an emotional experience. It can also be frustrating and disappointing at times, and so you must keep this in mind when you choose to undertake this. Keep in mind that the process can take a while and you may need to manage the experience over the course of many months.
If possible you should aim to have support throughout the process. This can be from friends, family, a counsellor or another professional. This may be a difficult time and regardless of how ready or enthusiastic you are, once you request your records you need to be prepared that you could be opening a “Pandora’s box” whose contents may be surprising, joyous, upsetting, frustrating… or anywhere in between. It can be really helpful to have someone to talk it over with.
Accessing records can disrupt the normal pattern of your life, and the lives of those around you. While in the long run most people are glad they did it, it can be a bumpy ride. People who have accessed their records talk about the impact on their relationships, their working lives and their mental health.
You should also bear in mind that if you have contact with family members you may discover things about them while accessing your records that could impact on the way you see and feel about them. It may help you to understand them or their actions better, but it may also reveal things that you didn’t know. Sometimes siblings and other family members can become upset about you ‘digging up the past’. This is not a reason not to access your records as it is your legal and ethical right, but it is good to be prepared.
Ultimately only you can decide when the time is right to learn more about your past but there are some steps you can take beforehand to prepare yourself, such as:
- Talking to friends, family and those you trust about the pros and cons of doing so. Remember, however, that no matter how enthusiastic or negative they are about it the decision to get your records is yours, and yours alone.
- Thinking about and writing down what you remember from your time in care. This will help you in two ways. You will be able to narrow down any specific gaps you would like to fill or questions you would like to ask. At the same time you will be able to use this information to identify the best places to search for your records.
How old do I have to be?
If you were in care, you have a legal right under the Data Protection Act to request access to your records on your own behalf from the age of 13. Children younger than 13 can also make a request through an intermediary. It is the responsibility of the organisation who holds the records to deliver them to you in a way that you can understand.
However, your age can make a difference to your search. If you are over 45 or left care before 1989 there is a greater chance that your records have been lost or legally destroyed, as prior to 1989 there was no requirement to keep them in the long term. If you are under 30 there is a greater chance that some of your records will be digital print-outs rather than on paper. This can affect the types of information you receive. For example, check boxes and lists are more common than lengthy narratives.
What do you want?
It’s helpful to consider what you want to get out of the access to records process at the start. It may help to write down or discuss your expectations, hopes and fears. What do you want your records to tell you, and what do you hope to gain by reading them? What are you worried you will find?
You should keep in mind that records are limited in how much they can tell you, and in their content. It is worth reading our page about Managing Expectations for more information on this.
If you are aiming for a reunion with either family members or people who cared for you remember that, for many different reasons, you may not be able to find them or they may not wish to be in touch with you. If you do get in touch with people you may want to consider what kind of relationship you want with them.
As mentioned above, it is important to identify a source of support. Family and friends are often many people’s “go-to” solution, but there are a variety of organisations and individuals who may be able to provide support to you.
Leaving care/personal advisors
If you are aged 25 or under and still have contact with the Local Authority or organisation that looked after you, then your leaving care worker or personal advisor should be able to help you access your records. They will be able to help you understand the information in them, and talk to you about anything that troubles you.
Support organisations for care-experienced adults
If you are over 25, or do not wish to talk with a social care practitioner about your records, then you might find it helpful to contact The Care Leavers’ Association or The Rees Foundation. Both organisations will be able to discuss options for support in your local area, or put you in touch with peers to help you through the access to records process.
The Salvation Army Family Tracing service
Care leavers are not entitled to the same intermediary support to contact relatives or former carers as adopted people. However, the Salvation Army has a relatively low cost searching service who can help to find and put you in touch with people.