Care-experienced identity: Why should we care?

Identity is rarely prioritised within social work practice as a developmental need of importance for care-experienced individuals, despite its centrality to promoting positive outcomes for those who have been cared for by the state. Care-experienced people face additional challenges in developing a strong sense of identity due to the instability and ruptures that are experienced within the care system. In this short blog series I will be exploring the themes of care-experienced identity using my findings from my undergraduate dissertation and offering my reflections on what they *actually* mean for somebody who has experienced the care system.

Care-experienced people are likely to have traumatic pre-care experiences such as abuse and neglect, which are further compounded by the harm caused by entering the care system. Individuals come into the care of the local authority with the underlying assumption that the state can provide better care than that of birth families. However, it remains contentious as to whether experiencing the care system alone creates these inequalities in outcomes, or if it is the care system’s inadequacies to resolve challenges derived from pre-care experiences. Being placed in care does not relinquish a child of their pre-care experiences, nor does it necessarily provide a more caring or secure environment. This impact extends beyond a child’s time in care and individuals often endure multiple disadvantages across their lifespan, evidenced in increased rates of mental health problems, involvement within the criminal justice system and lower attainment in education and employment prospects. Care-experienced individuals are further disadvantaged by how systems respond to their care status, particularly with language that pathologises care-experienced identity.

There are numerous challenges for care-experienced people in developing a coherent identity; one that resonates and makes sense to them and their journey. The experience of care is often presented as a fragmented history of trauma, navigating instability and relationships through various contexts of ‘care’. Some individuals may not even understand why they were placed in care or have been presented with conflicting information. Language within social work that creates stigma also plays an integral role in shaping selfhood and esteem, through the internalisation of negative judgments.

Historical Context:

Since the 1980s, there has been some acknowledgement in policy and practice surrounding the importance of identity development, with the increased emphasis on life-story work and access to social care records. However, life-story work has amassed criticism over being performative or non-existent in its delivery. Despite life-story work being enshrined in statute for children placed in adoption, it has become a neglected process of meaning-making for those in the care of the local authority. Keeping up with the increasingly bureaucratic demands of the profession means that life-story work has become perceived as a luxury rather than an essential component of practice. Nevertheless, that is not to say that care-experienced people who have received life-story work have any better sense of who they are. Life-story work can often be conflated with a photo album, rather than an ongoing process of meaning-making throughout an individual’s time in care. Consequently, individuals will often seek answers by accessing their care records to process unresolved identity needs.

Access to Records:

On account of their role as corporate parents, local authorities have a legal obligation to construct and preserve information concerning each child under their care. The creation of archives relating to care-experienced people has been enshrined in statute since the Children Act 1948, although recordkeeping practices have increased and transformed over time, with their construction and purpose influenced by changing political agendas, discourse and technology. Initially, this was mandated through the Data Protection Act 1984 which provided general rights for individuals to access electronically held personal data. However preceding the Access to Personal Files Act 1987, care records were routinely destroyed after several years and records were thought to be the property of social workers rather than those whom it concerned, reflected in BASW’s refusal in the notion to provide individuals with access to their records in 1976.

Gaskin v UK (1989) was a landmark case which increased the rights of care-experienced people to obtain their files. Gaskin sought to access his care records after pursuing negligence proceedings against his local authority due to abuse he had endured throughout his time in care. The council refused this request, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals under the guise of protecting the public interest. This was overruled by the European Court of Human Rights, which decided that Gaskin’s local authority was in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court asserted that individuals that have experienced public care should no longer be refused access to their files due to the essential role they play in identity development. Nowadays, in line with General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) and Data Protection Act 2018, care-experienced people have the right to access their social care records for up to 75 years from their birth date.

A greater emphasis on accessing records has resulted in a care-experienced generation who are grappling with their newly-found paper selves. The implementation of the ‘Orange Book’ led to a shift in approach in the late 1980s, setting out a methodical approach concerned with information gathering and risk management. The shift towards approaches of risk management led to social worker’s adopting a stance of recordkeeping as a form-filling exercise that distracted from ‘real social work’. Recordkeeping was and continues to be considered a boring and time-consuming activity that presents barriers to effective social work practice. The implications of which means that practitioners fail to envision recordkeeping practices as an essential component in fulfilling identity needs for care-experienced people, and instead records are created in haste with little thought about how the child may read and interpret what is written later in life. This results in a narrative that favours the practitioner’s voice and portrays an inaccurate and discoherent record, often laden with stigmatising and derogatory statements which can be distressing to read years later.

Current Context:

The contemporary social policy landscape places emphasis on measurable outcomes such as education, health and employment, whilst other psychosocial components of human development such as identity are not fully encapsulated within research and practice. Care-experienced individuals continue to experience the same level of documentation with little emphasis on meeting identity needs. the Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations note identity as an integral component of assessment and emphasises the importance of life story work in supporting individuals to develop self-hood, however, this rarely occurs in practice. Identity is a concept which appears frequently in government policy such as in the Children Act 1989 Transitions guidance and Care Leavers Charter, yet there is little tangible guidance on how social workers and carers must support this as a developmental need. The guidance makes reference to the development of self-concept and self-esteem as an essential parenting task that can present additional challenges within a care context, but fails to offer any resolutions for this, nor acknowledges how this is particularly important for people who have experienced familial displacement.

Identity:

The most commonly referenced theory of identity development is Erikson’s stages of development theory. This theorised that although identity is a life-long process, identity formation predominantly occurs within adolescence, whereby individuals negotiate different roles, personalities and behaviours, engaging in processes of reflection and comparison with peers to discover where they ‘fit in’ within their historical and social context. This may be particularly challenging for children within the care system who have little or conflicting knowledge about their histories, and whose social climate is forever changing through multiple placement and school moves. Nevertheless, this is considered a significant time for individuals to solidify their identity, integrating past, present and future experiences to develop a coherent narrative of who they are. Erikson proposed that experiencing identity confusion can result in low self-esteem and an unstable sense of self, which is evidenced to have a detrimental impact on the trajectories of emotional wellbeing across the lifespan.

However, symbolic interactionists would dispute Erikson’s idea of a coherent self, asserting the position of identity as an ever provisional and fluid performance. They consider identity as socially contingent, existing in cultural categories which inform how individuals are understood. The looking glass self explores how the self is negotiated by how individuals perceive themselves to be seen by others. Social interactions become a mirror in which the language, behaviours and gestures of others are then reflected in how individuals perform their identity. This has been further elaborated on as identity as a product of social construction and considered how identity is both willfully created but also constrained by culturally available discourses. A social constructionist perspective cultivates a discourse that acknowledges identity as a process that is actively shaped, constructed and negotiated by not only the individual but also the structures surrounding them.

My reflection:

It is interesting to look back at the history of access to records, and the conceptualisation of identity in social work practice. But it is sad to feel like not much has changed. Whilst we now have increased rights to the information written about us in care, I wonder how useful these really are when records continue to primarily serve procedural and professional agendas rather than utilised as a resource for identity and meaning-making for care-experienced adults. I wonder how useful they are when they continue to be redacted to excess or filled with derogatory language and archaic stereotypes of care. This is something that I’ll be exploring in the coming blog posts.

Identity is referenced in various guidance and features on the care plans I remember receiving through my door all too often. On my care plans, ideas of identity never extended past the generic ‘White British background, does not practice any religion’ like these descriptors of protected characteristics are the essence of who you are. I’d like to see social work practice that extends their ideas of identity beyond generic descriptors and put themselves into the shoes of that child. Who do they think they are? What are they used to? What makes them feel uncomfortable? Who are the key people in their lives? Who used to be in their lives? Are they confused about their story? Of who they are or what they want to become? I remember being chastised for not brushing my teeth regularly when I was first placed in care. I just couldn’t get into the routine of brushing my teeth twice a day like my foster family did. But nobody had thought to consider that toothpaste didn’t tend to feature in my life before care. These nuances are often what is missing when thinking about a child’s identity and how it shapes their everyday experiences.

I never once received life-story work. I still have no idea of who I am or what happened to me. I think the general consensus was that since I was 15 when I was placed in care, I was probably ‘mature’ enough to understand what had happened. However, when you’ve spent those 15 years in survival mode it is questionable how much of that you would remember. We know that trauma — particularly sustained childhood trauma — affects the way we store memories. Nevertheless, even if I did remember I still should have received therapeutic interventions to help me process those memories.

In some of the research I found, authors spoke of life story work being conflated to what is essentially a glorified photo album. But to be honest I’d rather have had a photo album than nothing at all. I have nothing from my childhood with me still today. No teddy bears, no blankies or baby photos. Last year I bought a copy of one of my most cherished books as a child — The Magic Faraway Tree — because I just needed at least something that was tangible to remind me of my childhood. Artefacts are so important, to have something you can touch and hold is especially important when you don’t have family members to fill in the blanks of the childhood that you coincidentally spent your whole childhood trying to forget. Our experiences of care shape us for the rest of our lives. It’s time that we start acknowledging its impact on identity.