‘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.