J McNally 2016, Living Traces Exhibition, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Memory Project

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In September 2016, the eScholarship Resource Centre at the University of Melbourne, supported by a Melbourne Engagement Grant, conducted a series of focus discussions on the topic Records and Rights of the Child. The project built on existing research activity at the ESRC into the impact of accessing archival material on later life experiences of people who have childhood experience living in out of home ‘care’. The project team brought knowledge from the Who Am I? and Find & Connect web resource projects, and a research method informed by a commitment to working together with communities to help achieve positive change. The Research team included Dr Antonina Lewis, Dr Cate O’Neill, and Rachel Tropea; with assistance of Louisa Coppel (The Big Picture Strategic Services).

Three focus groups were conducted in Canberra, Brisbane and Sydney. They brought together:

  • People directly affected by policy and practice relating to records of out of home care or custody in childhood;
  • Representatives of government and non-government bodies responsible for making, regulating, enforcing, or altering those recordkeeping frameworks;
  • Creators and custodians of records of relevance to Care Leavers;
  • Frontline support workers who assist Care Leavers with discovery and access to records.

Participants across all three focus groups identified persistent shortfalls in relation to rights in records. The rights of children – and the adults they become – to exercise active agency in the determination and record of decisions is integral to their identity and wellbeing. However, these rights continue to be compromised, with each focus group articulating the need for systemic change to address longstanding failures and contradictions in both the application of policy and the interpretation of guiding legislation. Shortfalls most commonly expressed by respondents exist in relation to issues of: informed consent; inclusive participation; (mis)representation of identity; information portability; and post-care disclosure of records. Much frustration is caused by divergent access regimes across differing jurisdictions and cohorts, the inflexibility of FOI processes, and current redaction practices, which are overwhelmingly disparaged as being inconsistent, opaque, and ultimately detrimental, further eroding any trust Care Leavers may have in government or past care providers.

A shared advocacy agenda with national cooperation across State and Federal governments is seen as both crucial and lacking.

Based on the insights from the Focus Groups’ participants, the ESRC report proposes five principles for Inclusive Recordkeeping:

  • Inclusive recordkeeping requires inclusive language and design;
  • Inclusive recordkeeping requires clarity around the terms of participation;
  • Inclusive recordkeeping means having a right of reply;
  • Inclusive recordkeeping allows people agency over their information;
  • Inclusive recordkeeping recognises multiple rights in records.

For more information see Records and Rights of the Child: Report of Focus Discussions

Consistently, without exception, every young person we talk to really wants to know what happened, who their parents were, and they do get very frustrated and anxious around not knowing their past and also having parts of their records blanked out, they can’t get the information. That’s the trauma, that’s a source of anxiety for young people: they might not want to make the same mistakes as their parents, but they haven’t a point of reference.

CREATE employee, Sydney.

In terms of contemporaneous records, if [young people who are currently in care] are not participating in the creation of their records, with multiple agencies involved in child protection now, if information is put on their record that perhaps is a mistake, or misunderstood information, and if the young person can’t correct it, or express their own meaning … the decision makers in their life can make decisions based on that [false] information … so it’s not just a future issue…

State government employee, Canberra.

It would be nice to think that somewhere in the future it’s a different way [other than FOI] that people can access their information that’s held by government, in particular  … when people have been in care.

State government employee, Canberra

The young people that we talk to, they’re usually really horrified that the Department can continue to keep files about them … they are really worried others will read about them afterwards and they don’t want it to be used like a case study.

CREATE employee, Sydney.

Because it’s an interaction between the Department or the organisation and the child … I think both entities have rights, yeah, absolutely, without doubt. It’s a two way street.

Care leaver, Canberra.

The redaction thing is just a major, major thorn in the side to a lot of people.

NGO worker (record holding organisation), Sydney.