Obviously, as a professional, I have had to write stuff about the children I look after. In fact, I have done so everyday of my working life for the past 12 years. This can be anything from what they have had to eat, daily observations and phone calls with parents to reports for LAC reviews and so on.
Now, of course, everything I write is meant to be “objective” and “non-judgemental” and so on. But, of course, that isn’t really what happens – short of straightforward statements of fact such as: “he watched a film on TV” everything is coloured by how I experience the child or young person, and what I think is happening for him or her (in some reports I will be discussing their internal emotional world as much as their outward behaviour). This will be influenced by my experience, knowledge, training, world view and personal insight. It is certainly, to a large degree, subjective.
As with the, often misunderstood, phrase “non-judgemental”. It is true that we should not make global judgements about children or adults, but it is also true that when working with children we make value judgements all the time. We make judgements about how acceptable/healthy a child’s behaviour and choices are and, likewise, the behaviour/actions/choices of parents and other adults (including other professionals). And a good job too…child protection social workers, for example, definitely need to be making value judgements about what is and is not an OK way to look after a child. We certainly can not look after and help traumatised children if we restrict ourselves to discussing concrete, literal facts that we can point at.
The children I look after are aware of how much is recorded about them in a way I simply wasn’t when I was in care (in part because much more is recorded). They talk, resentfully, of us “writing everything down”. Quite understandably they have a fascination with what we are saying about them – in children’s home intrusions into the office are common place and attempts to steal or destroy log books and files are not unheard of.
While this is understandable, it would be wrong to get caught up in an idea that the children and young people should be allowed to read them. Adults and professionals need to be able to discuss young people honestly and freely and to say things that might be emotionally very difficult for a child to process or understand. It could be damaging. Even ordinary parents discuss things about their children that they would not say in front of them uncensored. And so they should. This adult/child boundary exists for a reason. However, when someone turns 18 then of course they should be able to read anything that has been written about them and to know why decisions were made. But that does not necessarily mean they will be emotionally ready or – even if they are – it won’t be very hard.
I guess this is really a preamble to what I really want to talk about. The other day someone tweeted asking for advice about accessing childhood social services records. This lead me to thinking about the time I read mine. I was in my mid-thirties and in therapy – and I thought about it with my therapist first. Although, in truth, once the idea occurred to me, I was always going to do it. I wanted to know what happened.
The story (very briefly) as I understood it beforehand, was my mum had put me in care when I was two-years-old. My Dad was working abroad to earn enough money to buy a house and my Mum had been unable to cope. I knew that Dad had briefly attempted to look after me but had not been able to (although I did live with him much later). I assumed (with epic naivety) that everything had been OK up until that point. I should point out that my Mother disappeared completely from my life when I was 5-years-old (her choice). I have not seen her since and do not know where she is. I hoped (again stupidly) that my records might answer questions I could not ask her. Namely, why?
Why did she put me in care?
What did I learn? Well…I learned that Social Services were involved before I was even born (initially something to do with housing). I learned that there were always “concerns” about how I was being looked after. I learned that I was taken into care because my Mum had called my social worker and said I was “too clingy” and “if you don’t take him away I will kill him.” If you are wondering, it’s quite something to think about your mum wanting to kill you because you wanted a hug.
I learned that my Dad would often not come and visit me for months on end, and would forget my birthday (even though we share the same birthday – apparently I mock innocently pointed this out to him). I learned that a social worker described my dad as a “strange little fellow” and “a bit of a fantasist”. I see my Dad regularly now and we have a reasonable relationship. I wish I could say what the social worker said was unfair – but I can’t. Still, it’s difficult to read a professional confirming what you secretly knew.
I learned lots of things but I did not learn why she put me in care. To understand this I would have needed to know about her own life, her own past. And there are parts of my (to be fair very comprehensive) records where my Mum talks to a worker about this – but what she says is redacted. Literally blacked-out. Because that is about her – not me. So I am not allowed to know what it says.
Of course I am a professional now – I have knowledge, training and understanding. I know about attachment theory, trauma and the impact of early years neglect. I know how important touch and hugs are for the healthy physical and emotional development of a child. I know how important those early years are. All the research, science and theories will tell you the same thing – ages 0-3. Ages 0-3. I have seen brain scans of neglected a 3-yr-old and compared them to an ordinarily developed 3-yr-old. I know terms like” neuro-plasticity” and “neural pathways” and “hard wiring” and I know what they mean.
I read my records like I read referral paperwork for a child coming to a kids home I work at. I analyse, speculate and diagnose. I begin to understand why I am fucked up.
And I wonder if it is possible for me to ever be OK.