It’s understood that record keeping is part of any social worker’s DNA, but surely it’s worth asking the question from time to time.
In a complex and multi-agency system, there’s no getting away from the fact that record keeping is crucial to the protection of vulnerable service users, whatever their age. At times, though, we can all recognise the feeling that it’s yet another bureaucratic hurdle getting in the way of the day job.
Nevertheless, the lives of vulnerable children and adults can be directly impacted by the information recorded about them. Of course social workers know this, and are understandably keen to provide credible ‘evidence’ to ensure their decisions are defensible and understood. As if this isn’t serious enough, it seems that social workers and their records can wield a profound and highly influential influence on service users for years on end.
This is particularly significant in the case of looked-after children. Professor Elizabeth Shepherd (UCL Information Studies), led the MIRRA (Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access) project, which collected interview and focus group data from more than 80 care leavers, social work practitioners and information professionals. The team found that social care records can be a vital resource for memory-making and identity. When people realise they can have access to their file, they can see it as an opportunity to fill in the gaps, to interpret the jumble of their life in care and to answer critical questions about what happened to them and why.
The same care leavers might find their records to be highly problematic. For a start, it’s not always straightforward getting hold of them, and if they are jargon-ridden and incomplete after the removal of ‘third party information’, the experience can be troubling, Rather than achieving clarity, people can be left feeling powerless and dehumanised.
Aiming for a ‘good’ record
Record keeping is clearly a vital and complex task which is required to meet many different objectives. In her role as chief social worker for adults, Lyn Romeo, believed that accurate record keeping is more than just good admin. She characterised it as ‘good manners’ – giving human interaction due attention and respect on paper as you should in person.
Remembering the audience is also important. Social workers do – and should – include professional judgments in their records, but the difference between facts and opinions ought to be clear in written material. Care leavers involved in the MIRRA project found it shocking and upsetting to discover how they were perceived by the adults around them. The assumptions and conclusions that had been documented years ago did not match their memories and where there was a ‘light touch’ treatment of lifechanging events, it felt demeaning.
MIRRA researchers also found that the voices of the children in social care were often omitted from their own records. There was a lack of personality and lived experience in the notes. Using words and pictures reflecting the wishes, feelings and views of service users can help build a picture of an individual’s identity. When viewed later in life, the service user will see that they were there and that their voice was heard – and recorded – in a significant way.
Perhaps if social workers could work with the service user on their file – including children’s drawings, or transcribed reflections of the meeting or visit – they could establish a more collaborative relationship. After all, Local Authorities can and must hold the most intimate and personal information about people and their lives, but fundamentally that information belongs to, or is part of the subject.
Speaking at the MIRRA project’s symposium last month, the Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, set out the issue simply: “Records of people’s pasts don’t just help to shape their memories, but help to shape how people see themselves today. This is too important an issue to not get right.”