Sarah's Story: Records Access

This post is by Sarah M. It was published as a case study in CLAN’s submission to the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) Proactive and Informal Release of Information in the Victorian Public Sector Discussion Paper (you can see the post on Find & Connect’s submission here:

Sarah was made a ward of the state in 2006, and remained under various Orders until she turned 18 in 2010. We have focussed largely on her experience in accessing records, however there is much more to her story, including personal accounts from her childhood which show a conflicting narrative to that which appears in her records. You can read her story in the CLAN submission here:

Sarah’s first experience of accessing records allowed her only an hour with her files at Berry Street. Sarah has kindly given us permission to share her experience:

I still remember the disdain in her face as she walked me through the office building. It was if my simple request was taken as a direct threat, that I dare have had the audacity to question their authority or actions. Once escorted to a dimly lit small interview room, where there were two lime green upholstered and godly uncomfortable seats, with a white coffee table that had all been crammed into small space with a single archive box full to the brim with records stood atop of the table. I looked upon the box and recall thinking to myself, how the hell am I going to get through all of this in one hour. I looked at my former case manager, who smirked before leaving the interview room, closing the door behind me, as if she knew that there was no possible way I could read every item in this archive box in one hour. I then proceeded to push the furniture aside, placing myself and the archive box on the floor and began to rummage through the files, looking through LAC documents, case notes and DHS referrals as fast as I could.

In my early twenties, with the assistance of Berry Street’s Coordinator of Client information and Support, I received my archival files. In January 2015, I was then provided two archive boxes overflowing with files. The sheer volume and weight of these files astonished me, but they represented five years of my life. In May 2015, I received my Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) files, which amounted to 757 pages. On 27 August, with the assistance of Angela Sdrinis Legal, I obtained 1484 pages of my DHS/DHHS files.

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Photo credits: AHPN

Even despite filing through FOI and with the Departments assurance that they had conducted a thorough and diligent search to locate all my personal archives, it was evident that I was still not a priority. It was only with the assistance of a solicitor that I received the ostensible total of my archives, despite being legally entitled to these documents. The notice of decision letter further read “The released documents contain sensitive information that may be potentially distressing to your client. Please consider the method in which you provide the documents to your client if you intend to do so”. I found this statement to be yet another overt display of oppression, it is implied that the individual lacks the emotional capacity to comprehend the details of their own life. Clearly, there remains to be major problems with accessing personal records through FOI, as there remains to be implicit power imbalances between children and young people subject to department involvement or care leavers and the government departments and community services organisations contracted to care for these children and young people, which need to be addressed.

However, there remain further issues relating to the content of what is recorded within personal archives and what formulates an individual’s life-narrative.

My voice was snuffed out, the adults employed by the state to ensure my safety and wellbeing expressed their assumptions, that my behaviours were; “attention seeking”, “abusive”, “self-centred”, “sullen and oppositional” and that I was “absorbed with her own issues”. During the first few months of my placement case management had even advocated that I be returned to my family home, without an adequate understanding of the complex and multidimensional issues that I was facing at the time. Their stance was based on the false narrative those corresponding agencies had constructed with no regard for my storytelling rights, nor provided me with any opportunity to be involved in the process.

In my opinion front-line careers, case-managers, child protection workers, magistrates and other interconnected government bodies cannot comprehend the reality of the version of someone’s life-narrative that they are constructing. Official records serve as a bureaucratic mechanism for justification of interventions and treatment, while snuffing out a child or young person’s autonomy and agency. As explored above within my own file which reveals conflicting accounts of my life-narrative, holding no regard for my voice or storytelling rights within the creation of archival texts.

This example aims to demonstrate the importance of nuanced, accurate, and authentic documentation, that is also transparent and provides agency to the children and young people of whom the life-narrative is being constructed. There is little point of making records about children and young people in “care” if those records tell only one side of a complex story and the voice of the child or young person is silenced.

Sarah’s story is here:

Author Sarah M.
Author Sarah M.