Social work, child care and history of social work

Holding history. Who do they think they are?

This week I have been in my Uncles home sorting out some of my late Aunts papers. She kept everything and inevitably there were, along with the birthday cards, wedding invitations and funeral service sheets kept for so many years ,pieces of family history and treasures witnessing her life. An envelope which simply said “Look in the garage”had contained the keys to a  sports car ,a surprise present from her husband 50 years ago.  A beautiful leather wallet  still contained a note from my mother,her sister,  wishing her a happy birthday. A note that had survived at least 70 years and said much about the relationship and the power of that family connection. These moments when I hold these scraps of history in my hands are the times when I know for certain who I am and where I belong. They are a powerful connection with my roots.  If I had been in a chaotic and dysfunctional family who were unable to care for me and I had been brought up in public care, the care of the state, I would have no old photos or frail pieces of paper to connect me to my history.  And yet as corporate parents we pay very little attention to this vital part of our parental responsibilities.

Who holds the history for these children? Obviously for some young people in care their families hold their past and to differing extents their future story, and for many children who return to their family there is not such a void as for those who have no substantial family ties. Every carer and social worker  they  have ever known hold fragments, threads of their past and future. The corporate parent are the curators of their history. It can be a lifetime’s quest for many ; for some there are no answers now as the information they seek has been lost or destroyed; for others it is too painful to explore ever; for many there is a time when they feel they can face that pain and we have to ensure that there is access to their past whenever they feel the need. That is our parental duty, which should not expire at 21 or 25. I have been in contact with many adults in care as young people and they all seek answers, they seek their own story. This is partly to understand what happened to them, but there is an underlying need to belong, to find roots and a sense of self, a place in the world. They deal daily with our preoccupation with the ideal of family life and that this is at the core of every ounce of happiness and joy in our lives. They may not know such a  family or worse they may have had an abusive and damaging family experience. Even those who have good care experiences feel the need to understand their own family story. I have witnessed the pure joy of someone finding their family, or parts of their story they didn’t understand even when it is not perfect or as they had believed for many years. What matters is they know. It has frequently brought me to tears and it changes people. It is more fundamental and complex than my simple excitement when I find out something new about my family. So we must attend to this as part of our professional task. Taking histories and drawing genograms are not just for the court papers.

So what can we do? There are two parts to consider. The first  is taking care of the birth family history and making a record in a usable form. Genograms do not cover this in enough detail nor does most life story work both of these tools have a more focussed usage. This may also include collecting photos and maybe small  material artefacts.  This may not be possible at the time of the crisis but can be done at later date. This is about detail.. what did granny do for a living and what day of the week was I born?The second part is  how we record  care histories, moves , carers,  schools and the social workers who have become part of their story. Social work records though accessible in theory are hardly fit for family story purposes. Again it is the detail that matters, school photos , holidays with a carer, the Christmas spent in a residential unit, who were those other children at the carers with the black  dog and what was the dogs name. If we think about what we want to know when looking at family photos then we can start to get to the kind of material required. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable, difficult material but it still belongs to that person. It is their story not ours to withhold only to be good custodians.

Of course there are implications for the Local Authority and for private companies who are contracted to provide services. I can hear the excuses now! Storage ,time and costs. All valid issues but this is crucial to every child for whom we care.What are we to do with this stuff? I would advocate keeping more rather than less. My Aunt had kept her school books,so maybe some sample school work, certainly school reports, even things made at school, and certificates would be appropriate. A holiday souvenir or a token from a family event, the name tag from a pet that was in a carers home, the list can be endless and requires some knowledge of the significance to the child now and in the future. Care authorities need to provide archiving, storage  and improved access. It is possible that young people want to take these things with them but maybe some of the papers can be copied. It is very difficult to hang on to these things when your future is uncertain and moving on is a feature of your life. Using  new technology maybe the answer. There is a brilliant new piece of kit for enabling young people to record their life in detail as called iLifemyLife. Check it out on It is an online journal and memory box which could be equally applicable to all not just those in public care. If every care authority were to invest in this then the problem would be largely solved. Destroying care home records when closures occur must be stopped, so much information is held in log books and in the photos hidden in filing cabinets for years. Residential staff often keep “treasures” from the young people in their care.

family history quote

Maybe the first thing is that the “corporate parent”must accept that this is a crucial part of their role and not just a side issue, investment in the task of being guardians of their children’s history will surely follow. A  serious rethink of the process of accessing information is needed. It is a very difficult proving impossible for many. Managed by social workers it should seen as part of the ongoing parenting task. The desire to assist and support the applicants in their quest must be paramount making it more than an administrative exercise that covers the legal requirements. File redaction can vary widely and a review is long overdue. Most young people can fill in the gaps anyway, though not always quite accurately! They were there, it is their life.

Maybe that is the point. We are simply caretakers of their lives,  responsible for the safekeeping of their stories and we should remember it is THEIR life not ours. We need to treat their need to know and belong with respect and then maybe we will at last see this as a vital part of our therapeutic work with young people in public care.

me and Francis and Tramp










7 thoughts on “Holding history. Who do they think they are?”

  1. Hi Jenni

    What a wonderful blog (as are they all!) – such amazing memories and account of your experience with your Aunt and Uncle.

    I can’t thank you enough for the iLife mention.  Hopefully, we will be able to do joined up-training one day J

    Are you ok for me to share this on our iLife website / Facebook?

    We are down in North London on Thursday to present to the ‘North London Consortium’ mostly involved with adoption.  Here’s hoping xx

    Hope you are well, see you in the summer

    Lots of love xxxx

    Sharon Robson



    From: The Vintage Social Worker Reply-To: The Vintage Social Worker Date: Tuesday, 14 March 2017 12:04 To: YouTube Subject: [New post] Holding history. Who do they think they are?

    Jenni Randall posted: “This week I have been in my Uncles home sorting out some of my late Aunts papers. She kept everything and inevitably there were, along with the birthday cards, wedding invitations and funeral service sheets kept for so many years ,pieces of family history”


    1. Yes very happy for you to share as widely as you like. Good luck with the presentation and certainly up for joint training at some point. Maybe I should run a permanent ad on the blog for you. x


  2. Feeling a little better, so the mind is a bit clearer.

    So will get stuck into your writings this weekend.

    Looking forward to it!



  3. I am very privileged to have two of the young people I was social worker for 13 years ago, back in my life as adults. How this came about is complicated but has brought me untold joy. What has become apparent to me over the past few years is how I am part of the narrative of their life and hold the key to their life story and identity for the years they spent in the care system. Both of their parents have since died and they have no family members who hold the key to their past.The importance of reminiscence and those converstaions which start with “Do you remember when?…..” or ” I rememember when you came to school and sorted out the head mistress!… ” has become so apparent., “Do you rememember when I got a tattoo and my tongue pierced and what you said! ” My own children ( now in their thirties) love to reminisce about their childhood and the funny things that happened , holidays we had, mischief they got up to etc. As you say it gives you certainty about who you are and where you belong. Being able to talk over the past and put it in context can, in my experience help young people to achieve maybe not closure but a depth of understanding which enables them to achieve a level of healthy acceptance of the past and move forwards in their lives.

    I couldn’t agree more with you about the importance of the corporate parenting role in maintaining the history and identity of young people care. At least it shows that someone cared enough to think beyond the immediate issues and look towards future well-being. Of course this is just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to what all children and young people need in order to grow and must always, in my view, be served with a generous helping of love.


    1. Thank you for your comment. It is indeed the tip of the iceberg but sometimes I think just getting something right would be good! Wehave to start somewhere. There is however much to do. So glad you are in touch with “young people” who you knew as children. I too enjoy those who did what and do you remember when conversations.


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