Louise Hughes 16 May 2019

What I've learnt from reading my social services file

I wonder how many of you reading this can remember what life was like before you went to school. What clothes you wore, what food you ate and how you interacted with your siblings. Well luckily, or maybe unluckily, I can.

As a care leaver, I have boxes and boxes of detailed notes going back to before I was born, commenting on every little thing that happened during my childhood. Professionals of all sorts observing and noting what I was like, how I evolved but more importantly – keeping track. Unfortunately, I am not alone with having these boxes of paper or folders stored on hard drives.

Life isn’t easy and the last twelve months have been particularly challenging, but I felt that undertaking the mammoth task of reading my file would help fill the hole that I have had my entire life. Why were we put into care? What was my mum really like? Who was involved in the final decision to put us into care?

Reading my file has been a double-edged sword. It is full of hard-hitting, unpredictable and challenging information but it is also helping me put the past to bed. Sometimes I even find myself laughing at what I read! But above all, it is helping me to own the label of being a looked after child.

I could have asked for access to my files when I turned 18, however, I waited until now – aged 23 – to begin the hard task of digesting information my brain has chosen to block out to protect me. As I begin to look through my files, beginning six months before I was born, I have learned that life was much more challenging for my parents than I could ever have anticipated. I can also see how my childhood has actively shaped my adulthood, from my inability to sleep through the night to how I mothered my younger sisters.

I’m not sure, however, whether social workers involved in a child’s life are aware that one day, these young people may ask to read their files. What social care professionals write will impact a care-experienced person’s adulthood. I was shocked to read that my sisters and I were referred to as “the subjects”. This dehumanising terminology reveals why so many care leavers feel as though they are treated as statistics as opposed to people with feelings.

Luckily, I have received support from my leaving care personal advisor who has been able to help me decipher the social care jargon, acronyms and generally ask questions to break up the intense couple of hours as I dive into my past as though it were a Harry Potter novel. It is crucial that young people are properly supported as they begin to read about their early lives. If I didn’t have the support of my personal advisor, I doubt I would be able to cope with the emotional strain of the task.

Before I opened my file I was warned that reading it would be a challenge. However, that is very much an understatement. I didn’t feel genuinely prepared to read about the not so perfect image of my parents or how I became a surrogate mother for my sisters earlier than I remember. I could have done with more support.

My personal advisor told me when we started this process that she had never gone through files with a young person before. In the past, she has just handed over the boxes and left the young person to it. That doesn’t seem fair or right to me. Personal advisors should be supported and given the right tools to help young care leavers through the process of accessing their files. I also believe that there should be funded counselling to give young people a safe space to process all the information they have just absorbed.

Social workers and other professionals write these notes so that everything is accounted for. However, these reports can also be beneficial to the young people who are the “subjects” of the case. If social workers wrote case files with young people in mind, being sensitive and aware of the content, then the files could be a positive tool for owning the label of being a looked after child.

I have just begun my journey of discovery and, as challenging as it is going to be, I’m going to carry on so that I can fill the hole I’ve had for 16 long years.

Louise Hughes is an ambassador of A National Voice, a programme run by charity Coram Voice for care-experienced young people aged 16-25, that works to raise awareness and challenge stigma.

CoramBAAF has published a book offering guidance for social workers and other professionals on how to support care leavers who would like to access their files

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