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‘Let me tell you’: Designing personal digital archives for children in out-of-home care

This blog post introduces the Master’s Thesis of Annelie de Villiers, who recently completed her Masters in Archival systems at Monash University.

Personal recordkeeping refers to the processes of creating, capturing, organising and pluralising records of a personal nature, whether by the individuals themselves or by others. This means that the records that are created about a child in out-of-home care (OOHC) actually forms part of that child’s personal recordkeeping.

So why do Care Leavers have so much trouble accessing their records? Why are the records often incomplete, incorrect and upsetting?

In the past, the Australian Care sector has created records as part of everyday business processes – for example, about Care decisions and children’s medical reports. Because these records were created without the understanding that the child might one day see them, the records can be confronting and upsetting. Care Leavers sometimes report feeling re-traumatised after accessing their records. They had hoped for something that would be personally meaningful and help them to make sense of their past and the records did not deliver.

If the Care sector recognised that their records were evidence of a child’s life and therefore formed part of that child’s personal recordkeeping the nature of their records would be very different. Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that the Australian Care system is continuing to create business-centric records, meaning that alternative measures of supporting the children’s personal and collective identity need to be explored.

My Life Story Book Front Cover

My Life Story Book Front Cover

One example of an alternative personal recordkeeping practice is life story work. Life story work has been applied more broadly across the Australian Care sector in recent years. I was prompted to do my research when I found the NSW Department of Family & Community Services’ My Life Story book – the Aboriginal version (download) .

Life story work involves the child or young adult engaging in narrative therapy with an adult in order to help make sense of their experiences.

As young people are more interested in engaging with life story work if it is in a digital format I first wanted set out to design a digital life story resource for children and young people in OOHC. Because there are more Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander children removed from home now than ever before, this project also aimed to identify the personal recordkeeping requirements of Indigenous children.

I quickly realised that even if such a resource was built, there is currently no underlying infrastructure or governance framework to support it. As a result, the research looked instead at how personal digital archives can be developed for children and young people in OOHC. After conducting a number of interviews, the project resulted in a set of design requirements for such a system.

Here are some of the requirements identified:

  • The system would need to be secure.
  • The repository would need to hold authoritative records (e.g. birth certificates) in an ‘administrative’ collection which is accessible by the child, carer and social worker(s).
  • The repository would need to hold records of a personal nature which is accessible only by the child.
  • The system needs to be interoperable.

At the ‘back end’, such a resource would be composed of two platforms; the first being the actual personal digital archive repository, the second being an interactive platform where the child or young person engages with their records – or creates new ones – in a meaningful way. While no system should ever replace face-to-face engagement, the use of such a system would acknowledge the right of a child or young person to their personal records.

For those who are interested in seeing the full set of requirements – the thesis ‘Let me tell you’: Designing personal digital archives for children in out-of-home care is currently undergoing review before being made available through Monash University’s Faculty of IT.


  1. Hi Annelie,
    Thanks for doing this sort of thinking for us – we all need to be sensitive to who might read in the future what we record now, but we also need to make sure that the records are useful, accurate, and truthful to those who will want to apply them to make valid decisions.
    My guess is that the reason some records record upsetting material relates to the motives of the writer – and, if those motives are more corrective, directive, or even cruel then that will show. Other records are upsetting, though, because the events or the decisions taken were, of themselves, not what the child would have wanted.
    Your suggestion of two levels of records, a cold factual record made by the various authority figures, and a personal digital record kept by the individual who is the subject of the record seems helpful to me. Obviously, some people won’t be bothered for now (and face being upset when they access the records in 15 or 20 years time!) but others may well find it very liberating to be able have their own say at the time it all goes down.
    Have you had any interest in setting up the sort of platform you suggest?

    • Annelie de Villiers

      June 30, 2016 at 11:08 am

      Hi Graham,
      The power of records to retraumatise is a very complex issue and still not well understood. This paper by two Care Leavers discusses the power of the case file and is incredibly powerful and illuminating – I highly recommend having a read!

      It’s difficult to answer your question Graham.
      There is a clear need for some kind of intervention/change to take place and my project (and the previous Virtual Locker project indicate that this type of platform is technically and conceptually feasible. However introducing an initiative of this magnitude in this area would only happen if there was enough interest from all sides.
      We need to go slowly and carefully into this space, because introducing an ill-considered system would only exacerbate current recordkeeping problems and the impact it has on the children in Care.
      Does UPA currently implement any personal recordkeeping initiatives with the children in their Care?

  2. Very interesting post Annelie, thank you. If only there had been something like what you describe in my day! A quick question: can you explain what you mean when you write, ‘The system needs to be interoperable’?

    • Annelie de Villiers

      June 28, 2016 at 9:18 am

      Hi Frank, thanks for your interest!
      You would make a system like this ‘interoperable’ for three main reasons:
      1. Other tools or resources could be built which would allow children to interact with their repository, e.g. like a life story work app.
      2. Being interoperable with existing recordkeeping systems in the Care sector would make it easier for social workers to add to a child’s repository without adding too much to the workload of the social worker (this is probably impossible given how their current recordkeeping systems are set up – this is what Joanne Evans is addressing in her research at the moment!)
      3. Making the system interoperable would mean that we have an exit strategy as the child’s content could be extracted from the system and either given to them or integrated with another system.
      Please let me know if this doesn’t make sense – I haven’t had coffee yet 🙂

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