Record-keeping is an integral aspect social work practise. The impact of records – at the time and in the future – mean it’s a question worth revisiting from time to time.
In a complex, multi-agency system, there’s no escaping the fact that record-keeping has a pivotal role to play in safeguarding. It’s unfortunate that crowded caseloads mean there can be times when, as just another piece of paperwork, it’s up against a list of other responsibilities.
Nonetheless, this information has real and direct impact. As a reflection of current experience, certainly, but it goes much further than that. This is clearly well known among social workers who are understandably committed to the way they take decisions, and how they evidence them.
In her role as chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo believed that precise record-keeping is more than administrative efficiency. For her, it’s a matter of ‘good manners,’ to give the same respect to an interaction on paper as you would in person.
It’s a big responsibility. Professor Elizabeth Shepherd, led the MIRRA (Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access) project at UCL Information Studies. She collected interview and focus group data from over 80 care leavers and social work practitioners. The research revealed that social care records can be an invaluable resource for memory preservation and identity formation. When individuals realise they can access their files, they view it as an opportunity to fill in the gaps, make sense of their experiences in care, and find answers to critical questions about their past.
However, some care leavers might encounter challenges with their records. Obtaining them is not always straightforward, and if the records are laden with jargon and lack completeness due to the removal of ‘third-party information,’ the experience can be disconcerting. Instead of achieving clarity, individuals may end up feeling powerless and dehumanised.
Rebekah Pierre, a care-experienced social worker, would recognise MIRRA’s findings. She sees records as a rich resource, giving insight into the otherwise unknown past. They’re not perfect, though, and suffer from inconsistencies in quality, often impacted by insufficient training and the demands of challenging workloads.
Striving for an Exceptional Record
To improve the quality of care records, social workers should approach this with mindfulness and focus on well-being. Creating the right environment and ensuring personal needs are met can help. Correctly spelling names and avoiding jargon are the essentials, but professionals should also keep in mind that their audience extends beyond colleagues and managers; writing with the expectation that the young people children involved – like Rebekah Pierre – will one day read these records, should always be a starting point.
Social workers need to incorporate professional judgments in their records, but it’s vital to distinguish between facts and opinions in written materials. The care leavers who participated in the MIRRA project were shocked to discover how adults around them had perceived them. The assumptions and conclusions documented years ago did not align with their memories, and when life-altering events were treated with a ‘light touch,’ it felt demeaning.
When John-george Nicholson accessed his care records, he discovered reports and reviews from social workers, Children’s Services managers, foster carers, psychologists and the police. “So many different voices taking turns to talk out my life,” he reflected, “but my own strangely silent”.
Had his records incorporated his own wishes, feelings and viewpoint, they might have offered a more recognisable summary. As it was, John-george was dismayed to see “so many versions of me … most looking like the reflection of a funny fairground mirror, all warped and bent out of shape”.
Rebekah Pierre adds that preconceived notions and biases should be set aside when writing about a child’s case, and a strengths-based approach should be employed, emphasising the child’s positive attributes. It’s essential to provide a balanced view, recording both challenges and strengths.
If social workers could collaborate with service users on their files, incorporating children’s drawings or transcribed reflections of meetings or visits, they could establish a more collaborative relationship. After all, local authorities may possess the most intimate and personal information about individuals and their lives, but fundamentally, this information belongs to, and is part of, the subject.
GDPR regulations mean that we all have the right to access personal information. In reality, it’s hasn’t been quite as easy as that. Three months after John-george Nicholson contacted his council, he received a package out of the blue. That file – anonymous and out of the blue, was the story of his childhood.
Rebekah Pierre suggests that establishing a national database could help to streamline the process, and giving individuals the power to interact with their care records is helpful. Jim Goddard, chair of The Care Leavers’ Association, notes that the accessible and automated application process is a step in the right direction, but there’s still room for improvement. Due to local authority staffing shortages and a surge in requests during the pandemic, many care leavers face extended waiting periods.
As Lyn Romeo pointed out, there’s a human on each side of every interaction, and acknowledging that is half the battle. It’s possible to be professional and personal at the same time, and that can make the difference in a care leaver’s experience when they’re trying to get to grips with their past and how it has impacted their present.