- Introduction: starting the journey
- Where do I start?
- Why are there files about me?
- How will I feel when I look at files about me?
- What is on the file about me?
- Where else can I go for information about me?
- Who can access records about me?
- Can I access other people's files?
- Have recordkeepers learned anything from the past?
- Getting help to find records about you
- Records Services
What to expect when accessing records about you
Where else can I go for information about me?
The importance for all of us having a story about our origins helps explain why accessing records is so crucial for those who grew up in institutional care; many become historians of the self.
Learning about your time in 'care' through accessing records isn't just about the information recorded in your personal or client files. There are other types of records held by organisations which can help you to fill in the gaps about your time in 'care'. As well as 'personal records' like admission records and case files, you can also get access to 'organisational' records (such as annual reports, minutes of meetings, and photographs). These can give important background information about the institution where you lived, and help you to contextualise and make sense of the details on your personal file. This context that comes from organisational records can be just as valuable as the records on your personal file. So you can think of the organisational records of a 'care' provider as being one element of 'your' records.
In the end, all the answers to your questions aren't all going to be found on your personal file. MacKillop Family Services recognises this, and its approach is to provide you with your client records, but also to find other records that can help you to understand and interpret your personal files.
It is essential to provide a commitment to interpreting the content of the client records and assisting with searching for additional records. In interpreting the records, it is also important to be able to provide an understanding of the social, political and economic history of the times and in order to place a person's time in care in a historical context.
Staff files and minutes of meetings
These type of records give information about staff members who were employed at different periods in time, about the governance of 'care' providers, and background about the key decisions made at the institution while you were there. Although it is not common, information about particular children sometimes appears in these types of records.
The superintendent of an institution was often responsible for making regular reports with details of occurrences at the institution. The names of children and details of a particular incident can sometimes be found in superintendent's reports.
For example, Child and Family Services Ballarat has in its archival collection, the handwritten superintendent reports of Arthur Kenny, who was superintendent from 1889 to 1908. These often contain information about children at Ballarat Orphanage during Kenny's time.
Annual reports can be a rich source of information about an organisation, and the institutions and out-of-home 'care' programs it ran. They often contain photographs of buildings as well as people. Annual reports contain information about the finances and governance of an organisation, and 'news' from the previous year.
There may be photos and other information in annual reports that tell you about your life, but it should be said that some of these reports and histories focus only on the people running the organisations and the issues that were important to them, like financial affairs and staffing matters.
The content of annual reports, including photographs, tends to put the best face on the way the Homes were run. The voices of children are very rarely heard and negative events are often glossed over or ignored. As one historian writes: 'annual reports are political documents; they reveal what they are designed to reveal, and obscure with aplomb what they do not intend to expose.' (Lynne Strahan).
Regardless of the 'spin', the statistics in the annual reports are generally accurate, and can provide insights into how children in need of 'care' were treated, and how external circumstances (like war, epidemics, economic circumstances) could affect children's welfare. Annual reports are a very valuable resource, if you can approach them with some degree of healthy skepticism, and try to read them 'against the grain'. They are also records which are likely to have been kept and preserved by an organisation, or even housed in some public library collections.
Many of the major 'care' providing organisations have had their histories published. This often coincides with an anniversary or milestone in the organisation's history. In many cases, these histories have been 'commissioned' by the organisation itself. Because of this, and for the reasons outlined above when discussing annual reports, organisational histories sometimes have to be taken with a grain of salt. They may put a very positive spin on a history that you remember quite differently. They may emphasise the stories of staff members and benefactors, rather than the lives of the children being 'cared' for. But, published histories contain a lot of information about organisations, their timelines, their changing approaches to child welfare, and can be a digest of precious photographs and documents held by the organisation in its archives.
Other sources of information
The Find & Connect website contains information about a range of historical resources that can help you understand and interpret the information on personal records. Finding out more about the historical context can help you understand more about the 'why' and hopefully lead to some healing, and an end to feelings of self-blame due to being bewildered about the past.
Many care leavers have written their own histories. These memoirs and autobiographies provide the history of child welfare from the perspective of the people most affected. Inquiries like Bringing them home, and Forgotten Australians received hundreds of submissions from people who had been in 'care' as children, and you can read their stories on the web.
In Find & Connect, you'll find information about books, articles and websites that provide historical background about homes, organisations, and child welfare in general. Where these sources are available on the web, you can follow links to them from Find & Connect.
The worldwide web is a great resource for the 'historian of the self', and its collections are ever-expanding. You can find images of institutions of popular photographic databases, like the National Library of Australia's Picture Australia and the State Library of Victoria Pictures catalogue. The National Library also has a collection of digitised Australian Newspapers from 1803 to 1954 which you can search for content about a particular organisation, person, institution or event.
Information about you or your family might also be found in historical sources not necessarily to do with the 'welfare system', eg
- Military records
- School records
- Police records
- Electoral rolls
- Street directories
- Births, deaths and marriages
- Parliamentary debates
- Geneaological sources
- Contemporary newspapers
- Scrapbooks of press clippings
Genealogical societies and online genealogical resources can be a good source of information about these types of records.