Archival Community, Indigenous Australia, Research, Stolen Generation

Digital Life Story Work with Aboriginal Children in Care

I was asked to prepare a video presentation of my research for the Masters of Education students of Australian Catholic University. A transcript of the presentation is included below with links to useful resources for those who are interested.

Hi everyone, my name is Annelie and I am currently completing my Master’s thesis at Monash University. As recordkeepers and archivists we are trained to have a unique understanding of the power of records within the lives of individuals and within wider society.

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Personal records can be anything which is created through your daily activities or interactions. These records don’t necessarily have meaning or value on their own, but the value and meaning that we ascribe to these records is what makes them important to the individual. There is a strong relationship between the individual and their records, as the records act as an affirmation of an individual’s account of their life, their personal narrative.

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Personal records are created through an individual’s interactions with their environment and connections with other people. When a child is put in care, their relationships with others and their environment becomes fragmented. This results in a fragmentation of their personal narrative. Care leavers commonly report a sense of not knowing who they are. In these circumstances, the personal records of the child have an even more powerful and important role to play in their identity formation.

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Unfortunately however, these children are less likely to have the types of personal records the rest of us take for granted. They are less likely to have a scrapbook made of their early years and the situation with regards to personal records gets worse once the child enters care.

A succession of Government enquiries have consistently revealed the negative impact of poor recordkeeping and archival practices in our care systems on the already fraught nature of fractured narratives of self for the children in out-of-home care.

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The records which are created through a child’s time in care are case files which are created solely for administrative purposes. These files were not created with the understanding that the children might see what was written about them later on in life, or that the records would play a fundamental role in ensuring those who hurt the vulnerable children in their care were brought to justice.

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Two academics, Jacqueline Z. Wilson and Frank Golding – who happen to be care leavers themselves – recently published an incredible paper exposing the types of mistakes and biases that were included in the case files by publishing excerpts from their own files. They explain the dual affect of the case file, on the one hand validating what the care leaver remembers of their past, and on the other hand causing distress when the official account differs from personal recollections.

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The archival community has been involved in a number of initiatives attempting to address the re-traumatization of care leavers when they do access their case files later in life, whilst also ensuring that current recordkeeping practices by care providers are improved.

The Who Am I? project resulted in the Find and Connect website which aims to connect care leavers with the records which help to make sense of their past. The hope amongst care leavers accessing their records is to make sense of their experiences; why they were put into care, where they were at what time (in some cases children went through eleven foster homes in one year), etc.

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Up to now, the archival community has been instrumental in trying to retrospectively alleviate some of the symptoms of decades of poor recordkeeping and archival practices in the care sector. They have also been involved in a number of research projects which highlight the need for current practices to change, for carers to create records with instead of about the child.

My Research

In contrast, my research project will focus on a way in which the child can create their own narrative with or without their carers through the use of a digital life story work application. Providing children in out-of-home care with the means to take ownership over their own narratives seems to me a fundamental right. The social work system is one in crisis, meaning that the current Life Story Work practices are impractical in their reliance on carers with the time and inclination to support the children through the sense-making process.

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Life Story Work is a sense-making practice employed by the Social Work discipline, and was established by Ryan and Walker in 1985. It is designed to create opportunities for meaningful conversations with the child/youth to help them make sense of their fractured environments and relationships and to create a continuous narrative of self.

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The reason I have chosen to focus upon the design of a digital life story work application for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and youths in particular is threefold:

  • The NSW Department of Family and Community Service’s ‘My Life Story Book – the Aboriginal version’ appears to preference Western ways of communication and Western ideas of family and community.
  • Adolescents typically are unwilling to ‘engage with traditional life story work resources, frequently citing them as being “for kids”‘ (Hammond, 2013, p. 1). The current life story work resource was developed by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services in 2005 (in the pre-Web 2.0 world), and very much appears to have been created with young children in mind.
  • Other current life story work and digital storytelling initiatives are being developed without appearing to consider recordkeeping and archiving principles, which is particularly concerning when one considers the vulnerable nature of these children and the crucial role which personal records and personal narratives play in their ongoing identity formation. Recordkeeping and archival practices would help to ensure that these records continue to be accessible to the individuals throughout their lives.

The urgent need for improvements in this area becomes apparent when one considers that the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children removed from their families has increased by 65% since the Federal Government apologized to the Stolen Generations in 2008. Indigenous children are 10 times more likely to be removed from their families than children of other races.

According to The Productivity Commission’s Report on Government Services, Indigenous children make up 35% of all children in care, despite the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children only make up 4.4 percent of the population.

Photo taken of a protest march in 2014. Original image on stopstolengenerations.com.au
Photo taken of a protest march in 2014. Original image on stopstolengenerations.com.au

Whilst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Placement Principle aims to help ensure that Indigenous children removed from their families still remain within their mob, this is only actually done in 37.5% of cases. Critics call this the ‘Second Stolen Generation’.

My research aims to develop a set of principles and requirements for a digital life story work application for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care. It is expected that at least one of the requirements will stress the need for the children to be educated about the communities from which they have most likely been removed. This can done with Web 2.0 technologies which would connect the child to their kin through interactive capabilities and communication platforms.

The existing ‘My Life Story Book – the Aboriginal version’ is not customizable, and there is just the one resource for every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child, regardless of language or mob. Many children identify with several mobs, and a digital application would ensure the flexibility required to customize it’s information according to the child’s age, sex and mob(s).

An additional benefit of encouraging Indigenous youth to actively create and engage with technology is to address the digital participation gap. A fundamental flaw in the current government initiatives to ‘bridge the gap’ is that the aim is to bring the levels of Indigenous literacy up to the lowest of the rest of the populations’ literacy levels. Surely that aim is unworthy of our Indigenous community?

It is likely that you will encounter many children in out-of-home care in your classrooms through the course of your career, however any child would benefit from Life Story Work for the creation of personal records and a continuous personal narrative. As teachers, you have a unique opportunity to help address the identity issues which children from fractured backgrounds commonly experience.

Useful Life Story Work References and Guides:

Hammond, S., & Cooper, N. (2013). Digital life story work: Using technology to help young people make sense of their experiences (No. 1). British Association of Adoption and Fostering.

Rose, R. (2012). Life story therapy with traumatized children: A model for practice. Jessica kingsley publishers.