“He is a bad egg. His history of offences and reoffences is too long to list. We’re talking graffiti-ing. Littering. Smashing stuff. Burning stuff. Breaking stuff. Stealing stuff. Throwing rocks. Running away … and that’s just the stuff we know about …”
This is a description of Ricky Baker, the hero of the (now showing) NZ comedy film Hunt for the Wilderpeople. The person doing the describing is Ricky’s case worker from Child Services, as she hands him over to new foster parents at their idyllic, remote farm somewhere on the North Island. The system has already written off Ricky, at almost 13, as ‘a real bad egg’. He’s been in numerous placements, keeps getting into trouble, and it’s made clear that if this placement fails, Ricky will end up in ‘juvie’.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is primarily a chase movie, as the relentless, Terminatoresque child protection worker pursues Ricky and his ‘Uncle’ through the bush. Seeing this lovely movie on the weekend (my verdict: 4 stars) I couldn’t help but think about the labels and judgements that child protection systems (both past and present) put on vulnerable children. The social worker doesn’t bother to think about what Ricky might be trying to communicate through his challenging behaviour. She just sees it in terms of the problems and extra workload it creates for her.
Records play a vital role in the process of turning children into ‘delinquents’ and ‘bad eggs’. Writing about their own child welfare records, Wilson and Golding reflect on the ‘highly damaging judgemental paradigm of gendered and moralistic assumptions of the inferior character of those in care’ (Archival Science, 2016). Many Care Leavers are dismayed by the derogatory, inaccurate and biased accounts that they find in their ‘care’ records.
In 2010, Vlad gave a presentation and talked about his reaction to his ward records:
… it’s staggering to find out that the welfare department, in that day and age and era, was allowed to get away with certain things the way they did. There are comments in that pages that are derogatory to a little boy, you’re talking about a boy who was 10 years old, 12 years old, and they’re literally saying that this boy was no good. Would always grow up to be no good … well, I’m sorry, that was part of a system that let me down.
Vlad was speaking at a workshop that was organised by the Who Am I project, the precursor to Find & Connect. One of the research strands of this project related to current practice, and improving the recordkeeping of child protection practitioners. Kertesz and Humphreys wrote about how
recording practice throughout the out-of-home care sector in Victoria is dominated by a focus on complying with expectations and the need to justify the professional response when problems arise … the result is often that the child’s perspective becomes invisible/inaudible in the administrative records created … the voices and stories of Care Leavers are a reminder that professionals and carers working in the out-of-home care field are accountable to the children in their care, not just for the experience of care itself, but also for helping them have a story of their own lives.
One of the outcomes of the Who Am I project was a set of resources to help make records meaningful. The project also produced a video featuring the voices of two people who were in ‘care’ (one in the 1940s-50s, and one in the 2000s), and talking about the importance of records.
I like to think that if Ricky’s worker had to sit down and do some reflective practice with her manager about Ricky’s case, she would soon come to realise that pursuing this bad egg through the bush was perhaps not in line with ‘best interests case practice‘. And that with some support and encouragement (as well as with input from Ricky as the subject and co-creator of his records), she would document this incident in a way that was strength-based, culturally competent, and developmentally and trauma informed. Now that would be a happy ending.