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Victims and survivors of abuse explain difficulties accessing records

Institutions are reluctant to share care records with victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, a report has found.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s Victims and Survivors Forum, which is open to all victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, were asked three questions as part of the inquiry’s participation work.

Forum members were asked:

1. What is your experience of accessing records about the abuse that you suffered and your childhood?

2. How has being able or unable to access records about the abuse that you suffered (and records relating to your childhood overall) affected you?

3. What steps do you think should be taken to ensure that victims and survivors in the future have an improved experience of accessing records?

With regards to their experiences accessing records, forum members experienced problems with the culture of the institutions.

Most commonly, Forum members described institutions as reluctant to share records and victims and survivors reported that they encountered a lack of sensitivity and a defensive culture. They often described staff as suspicious of their requests to access records and there were examples of this adversarial culture causing unnecessary delays.

Victims and survivors had been told that institutions were not obliged to share information, or that data had been lost
during a transfer from paper to digital records.

Some members said that they had been misled or lied to about the status of records. For example, one individual had been informed that the social care records about them were long destroyed. However, they were later told that the criminal justice process surrounding the abuse they suffered had relied on information from these records.

Occasionally, institutions refused to share records on the grounds that they might be too upsetting for the victim and survivor. This caused frustration and a sense of disempowerment amongst Forum members with many feeling patronised and that others were making these decisions without their consent and, often, against their will.

Yet victims and survivors also indicated the positive impact that individual staff can have when they take their requests seriously and treat them with compassion. Some Forum members were able to access records due to positive, personal relationships with members of staff at particular institutions.

Alongside a general reluctance to help, the majority of members had faced practical barriers when attempting to access records about themselves. These problems were frequently due to how institutions had created, stored or managed records.

The process of trying to access records was extremely complicated for many Forum members. Many victims and survivors felt confronted by a maze of bureaucracy.

Some Forum members’ records were not accessible and a small number of survivors of abuse in schools were informed that staff had taken records with them when they left the institution. For others, the relevant organisation had closed down, or was no longer operating from the same site, which had led to records being destroyed.

Victims and survivors had also faced issues accessing records due to concerns about the data protection rights of third parties.

Victims and survivors had also been told conflicting information about their legal rights. One Forum member noted that, “staff often have a misunderstanding of the law around records. It is exhausting...you end up being [like] a qualified lawyer".

A smaller number of participants discussed the financial implications of trying to access records. The high cost of, for example, requesting information from courts had prevented some victims and survivors from being able to access these records.

In relation to how being able, or unable, to access records about the abuse that members suffered (and records relating to your childhood overall) affected them, the inquiry heard about both the practical and the emotional impact.

“Many told us that not having records had negatively affected criminal proceedings, civil claims and applications for services or compensation. The process of application was repeatedly described as emotionally strenuous and demeaning for Forum members. For those who were unable to access records, most felt frustrated and that their experiences had been erased. Many of those who were able to access records told us either about their anger at the contents, or about a sense of resolution,” said the report.

Many Forum members reported that not having access to records had impacted court proceedings and the inquiry heard of the frustration and sense of powerlessness that was caused by not being able to pursue justice.

Victims and survivors’ applications for compensation, or for support services had been adversely affected by not having access to records.

The process of accessing care records was also time consuming. This was often because relevant records were held at a variety of institutions, such as local authorities, schools and GP surgeries and the institutional reluctance to share records.

There was also the general emotional impact of accessing or not accessing records. Victims and survivors felt that their recovery was dependent on being able to access records.

The report also highlighted:

- Forum members commonly reported very strong feelings of determination and injustice.

- Many victims and survivors expressed a sense of unease or discomfort about others accessing records about them.

- The experience of accessing records had left some Forum members questioning their understanding of their own experiences. One victim and survivor made a comparison to ‘gaslighting’, which refers to a form of psychological abuse in which a person or institution seeks to undermine a victim’s memory and perceptions.

- Victims and survivors felt dismissed by institutions when they requested access to records.

- Forum members found the process of trying to access records re-traumatising.

- Most members said that trying to access records had been stressful and they had experienced a decline in their mental health as a result of the process.

- Victims and survivors reported the anger and frustration at the nature of the process.

- Many felt a sense of injustice and resentment that they were not able to easily access information about themselves.

- Forum members discussed feeling scared, insignificant and powerless while trying to access records.

- Some victims and survivors described derogatory treatment when trying to access records. Many felt that they had been identified as a "problem".

Where Forum members had not been able to access records about themselves, there was a strong sense that a part of their identity and personal history was missing. For many, this impacted their confidence and ability to achieve closure following the abuse they suffered. This sense of incompleteness was often linked to gaps in victims and survivors' recollections of their childhood, or to a desire to further contextualise their memories.

Many victims and survivors told the inquiry that, without records, their accounts of childhood abuse had not been believed. Forum members often felt that if they had been able to access this information, they would have had their experiences validated.

Some of those who were able to access records felt angry at the contents, largely due to feeling that the information had been heavily redacted.

Forum members also expressed anger at the information contained in the records. Many gained an enhanced understanding of how they had been treated and were frustrated at how badly they had been let down.

However, victims and survivors recounted the benefits of receiving records such as bringing a great sense of closure and validation.

Many members described how this information had helped them to stop blaming themselves. A few victims and survivors indicated that having access to records had allowed them to progress with legal cases, or applications for compensation.

Relating to the last question which asked how things could be improved in the future, the predominant message from Forum members was that they felt institutions should have a more compassionate and trauma-informed approach to requests for records.

Victims and survivors also told us that they would like to see a more proactive culture within institutions that are responsible for holding records. Many explained their sense of injustice that the onus to track down and retrieve their personal information was on them.

As part of institutions building a more empathetic response to victims and survivors of child sexual abuse, some Forum members suggested the use of trigger warnings. Some felt that they were not sufficiently prepared for the content of records about them, and should have been warned about the potential for re-traumatisation.

Forum members wanted records about them to be of a higher quality. This was often suggested in reference to the
level of detail that records contained, or the difficulties that victims and survivors faced in interpreting their content. There were repeated calls for records to be held for longer. There were also calls for institutions to modernise their systems in order that changes and deletions to records could be tracked.

Some Forum members thought that institutions with a duty of care over children should be bound by a legal requirement to keep accurate records.

The majority of Forum members told the inquiry of their desire for a central records hub, or advocacy service to support victims and survivors as they process an application to access their records.

Victims and survivors thought that they should have a legal right to access records and many participants said more transparency was needed about the process of accessing records.

Several responses suggested that the financial costs of accessing records, such as having to pay to see court records, should be removed in the interest of promoting access to victims and survivors.

The Inquiry has pledged to continue to consider how victims and survivors’ experiences of trying to access records about themselves can be improved.

Victims and Survivors Forum

Workshops on accessing records: Summary Report
https://www.iicsa.org.uk/key-documents/17611/view/03-03-2020-access-to-records-forum-report.pdf

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