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Accessing Records in South Australia

By Karen George, 2014

Starting the journey

Now I have my own little biography in my hands, my world has expanded …
(Priscilla Taylor, November 2012)

If you (or a member of your family) spent time in ‘care’ during your childhood or youth, it is likely that some records relating to you and your story exist.

When you came into the care of the government or another organisation and were placed in a Children’s Home, in foster care or in another care arrangement, documents would have been created about you. These might be such things as admission cards or entries in an admission register, a file or files with written reports and correspondence about you and your situation.

The state government or non-government agencies that provided care created these records as part of their welfare work. As the creators of the document, they are now the ‘custodians’ or holders of these personal records about you and all other children in care. Depending on when you were placed in care, the records created about you might be documents written or typed on paper, electronic records or a combination of both.

These documents can’t be seen on a website, or in a book, because they are private, personal, and confidential. If the records are about you, however, you have the right to ask for them to be located and to have access to them.

People try to find their personal records for a variety of different reasons. It can take a long time to make the decision to approach an organisation and ask about your records. Once you have made the decision to do so, it may help to know where to start and what might happen.

This section of the Find & Connect web resource provides a step by step guide to finding out about, and applying for access to, your records in South Australia.

What to expect

It’s heartbreaking to see these records like this. But then again, it puts the jigsaw puzzle together, the missing link, so that there’s some comfort there now.
(Sid Graham, March 2002)

People often embark on the journey to locate and access their records expecting to:

  • find all the answers to questions about their childhood
  • be given access to their records straight away
  • find detailed, accurate records about their time in care

Many of these common expectations will not be met when you locate, apply for and are provided with copies of your records. However, sometimes the process can result in finding a few answers and a sense of closure.

If you were taken into the care of the state and became what was referred to in the past as a ward of the state, there may be some form of state care records about you held by the South Australian government.

If you were not made a ward of the state, there may be documents held by the non-government agency that is the custodian of the records from the Home or organisation which cared for you. For example, if you were placed in a Catholic Home, the Professional Standards Office Records Service of the Catholic Church may hold records related to your time in care. In some instances, the only surviving documents kept by some non-government agencies might be an admission register or a discharge record.

It is also possible if you were made a ward of the state that you could have spent time in a non-government institution in which case there may be records about you held in more than one place.

In the past government departments and non-government care providers kept records primarily for administrative purposes rather than to keep an accurate record of all events. For non-government care-providers, during the first half of the twentieth century, there was often no requirement, to create or keep any form of record about the children in their care. Unfortunately this means that older records may be superficial, inaccurate, or incomplete, and therefore may leave many of your questions unanswered.

The records kept and the information recorded will vary according to the time period during which you were in care, what sort of institution or form of care you were placed in, the policies and practices of the care provider, and even the personal habits of the different staff members who created the records. Some staff members wrote down more information than others.

For all of the above reasons, some people find that their years in care only generated a few lines or a handful of pages of writing. Others might be presented with a great deal of information. Whatever the amount and type of information you receive, it will rarely be an accurate reflection of your experiences as you remember them.

How will I feel when I look at records about me?

There’s letters written there in my handwriting and I go berserk, I can’t handle it. I can’t go near them because I see my handwritten letters there as a little kid. You know, ‘May I see my brothers and sisters? I haven’t seen them for a long time. They’re dear to my heart’. ‘Do you know where my mum is? Can I please see my dad?’ There’s letters written back by them that my behaviour didn’t warrant visits. There’s letters there saying that if I didn’t improve my behaviour that I would not be able to be with my brothers and sisters and that I would never see my parents again.
(Confidential evidence 284, South Australia, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, 1997.)

Many people when they receive their records and begin to read them don’t expect it to be such an emotional experience. They are unprepared for the emotional impact. They may experience a wide range of emotions such as feelings of anger, hurt and sorrow, or perhaps a sense of confirmation and relief.

Some people find that their records are not just made up of bureaucratic facts and figures but instead contain documents that bring back the pain of a child being removed from family. Sometimes the records about you that have been brought together will contradict the way you remember the past. Documents might contain information that was kept from you as a child, or reveal that you were lied to when you were in care. Sometimes people discover letters from family members that were never passed on, or letters that they wrote which may or may not have been sent out.

The process of seeking access to your records, however, can also lead to positive experiences. By locating and accessing records about your time in care, you may find clues or answers to questions about your identity. Records can sometimes help if you have gaps in your own personal history, especially related to your childhood. They can lead, if you wish, to reconnecting with friends from your childhood. Some people find it meaningful or helpful to attend reunions of the home where they lived as children, or get-togethers organised by support groups for care leavers. Sometimes this can lead to a sense of being part of a community on a similar journey, rather than feeling you are travelling your path alone.

What are my rights to access government records about me and others?

Today, in each state and territory, different laws relate to privacy and freedom of information. There are also commonwealth laws which relate to records under the control of the Commonwealth government. In South Australia the legislation that relates to accessing government records is the Freedom of Information Act 1991. Under this Act, members of the public have a legally enforceable right to access documents, subject to some restrictions.

In the case of other people’s records, for example a sister or brother or a parent, it is possible to be granted access to those parts of a document that contain information about you. You might find that your access to some information in the records (yours and other people’s) is restricted. This is because of the interpretation of privacy or freedom of information legislation. Usually, it is information about ‘third parties’ – meaning people other than yourself – which you may not be permitted to see.

The need to protect third party information is sometimes at odds with the need people have to find out information about family members, and their past. In the case of government records, there are formal avenues to appeal any information that is exempted and these appeal rights are generally outlined when records are provided.

Accessing South Australian government records

If you were a ward of the state, even though the government is the custodian of records about your time in care, you have a right to request access to records if they contain information about you.

How to apply for access to government records about you

If you would like to apply for access to your records that are held by the South Australian government, the way to start is to fill in an application form available on the government’s website, see Freedom of information (FOI) requests.

Staff and caseworkers at Elm Place, (the Find & Connect Support Service) can help you to fill out the form if you would like assistance. In order to protect your privacy you will need to provide proof of your identity. If you are applying for records of a relative, you will need their permission or if they are deceased, a copy of the death certificate. When completed the form should be sent to Families SA at the address provided on the form. Elm Place can do this for you if you prefer.

What happens behind the scenes

Although Freedom of Information [FOI] legislation states that an application that has been lodged with Families SA should be dealt with within 30 days, due to demand and backlogs, it could be a lot longer before you receive your records. Families SA should be able to give you an estimate and will keep you informed along the way.

The FOI officer carries out the same standard search for each person who applies for their records. This search covers as many types of records as possible. If a client file has survived, an exact copy of that will be made, along with any other types of records found that are related to your time in care.

Unfortunately, the nature of handwriting and the degrading of some papers, such as thermal fax paper, can mean that some copied documents are hard to read. Once copied, however, the records are then checked for information about third parties, relatives and others, who have not given permission for their information to be released to you. These are whited out and a note about the part of the legislation that meant that this information needed to be restricted is added. All of the records are then brought together to form a new file. This file of combined documents is re-copied, ready for release to you.

How will I receive my records?

Once your records have been checked and copied, if you have provided a phone number, the FOI officer will ring you to let you know your file of records is ready. If you cannot be contacted by phone, a letter will be sent to the address you supplied on the form. The file is then sent to Elm Place to be released to you, unless you specifically request otherwise.

Everyone who applied for their records is encouraged, but not required, to have what is referred to as a ‘supported release’, meaning that you first look at your records in the company of a Find & Connect Counsellor, or on your own at Elm Place. This allows you to call upon a counsellor if you need to. If you choose to come to Elm Place, it is your choice how you would like to be assisted. If a substantial number of records have survived which relate to your time in care, they may be released to you in stages to make sure that you receive part of your records within a reasonable time-frame, but to also allow more time for the FOI process.

Records held by other government departments

The documents you receive from Families SA were created by the government welfare department of the time. While you were in care, other government departments might also have written things down about you and your situation or assisted you in some way. Think about all of the organisations you are connected with today who have some information about you. A similar situation existed when you were a child. You may have:

  • Births, Deaths and marriage records
  • School records
  • Health records
  • Public Trustee records
  • Centrelink records

The Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages has information about the dates and details of these life events for yourself and your family members. If you attended a government school, admission and assessment records would have been created about you by the department responsible for education at that time. If you were in hospital or a convalescent or rehabilitation facility, medical and other information would have been written down or entered into an electronic system. If you were assisted with finances or housing, the communications you had with the government about these things will also have left a record trail. If you were placed in a non-government home supported financially by the government, there may be records related to the subsidy paid to the organisation for your care or Child Endowment payments made by the Commonwealth government.

For each of these types of records, you will need to approach the current relevant government department to apply for access to documents created in the past. In some cases, for these government records, you will need to fill out another FOI form or another type of application form.

The staff at Elm Place may be able to assist you in finding out which departments you need to contact for different types of information.

Accessing non-government records

If you were not made a ward of the state, but came into care through other circumstances, records about your time are unlikely to be held by the government. Instead they may be held by the organisation which ran the Home you were in (for example a religious or charitable organisation), or in another repository (for example, a library).

How to apply for access to records held by non-government organisations

To get your non-government records, you will need to approach each organisation individually to apply for access to records, as each will have its own requirements.

For example, if you were placed in a Home run by the Catholic Church, you will need to contact the Professional Standards Records Service of the Catholic Church. This agency is the holder of all records relating to children placed in Catholic Homes. Similarly if you spent time in an Anglican Home, you will need to contact the Anglican Archives, or if you were in a Salvation Army Home, the Salvation Army Territorial Headquarters.

Sometimes, organisations place their records into other repositories such as State Records, State Libraries, other community libraries or the National Library of Australia. Information about each of these records holders, such as the types of records they hold and their access and contact details are available on the Find & Connect web resource. If you search by the name of the Home or the organisation which ran it, you will be able to find links to the kinds of records that have survived and who holds them now. The staff at Elm Place can help you to find this information on the site and assist in contacting the relevant organisations to apply for access.

Records held by other non-government organisations

Just as other government departments wrote things down about you, if you were assisted or involved with other non-government organisations, they may also have documents about you. If you attended a private school, were involved with a local church or applied for some assistance from a charitable organisation, some information or correspondence may have been kept about these involvements.

In such a case, you need to contact the relevant organisation to find out if any records have survived and what access requirements apply to them.
By gathering documents from different departments and organisations you may be able to put together the pieces of your life like a jigsaw puzzle, gradually coming up with a clearer picture.

What to do if the records you receive are very limited

Well, I got a letter basically saying that my file has been destroyed. They no longer have my information available. I can’t get any of my file dating back to the time I was with the [foster family].
(Forgotten Australian, in foster care in 1970s as quoted in Children in State Care Commission of Inquiry report, 2008, p. 537.)

Unfortunately when some people receive their records, they are shocked by the very small amount of information that has survived. Sometimes it is because records were not kept properly; sometimes it is because documents were destroyed. During the 1970s, the government became very concerned about people’s privacy and there was general feeling that private information about children was just that, private and confidential. A decision was made to destroy a large number of children’s files and keep just a sample, an example of the kinds of files that were kept in the past. Today the government deeply regrets this decision and recognises that it is not possible to select a sample of the lives of children in care, as all had different and individual experiences. Similarly during this period, many non-government organisations had the same policies and to protect privacy deleted names from records or destroyed them.

Today laws about the keeping of public records operate in each state, territory and across the commonwealth. They require government, and the relevant agencies within government, to keep the personal records of children who were in care permanently. Usually the current day internal policies of non-government organisations state that care providers must also keep client files permanently.

Inquiries such as the ‘Forgotten Australians’ (2004) and ‘Bringing them home’ (1997) have also stipulated that these records are never to be destroyed. In South Australia, the Children in State Care Inquiry, often referred to as the Mullighan Inquiry (2008), also called for all records related to children in care to be retained permanently. These inquiries recognised the deep importance and value of these records to Forgotten Australians, Former Child Migrants, members of the Stolen Generations, and anyone who spent time in care as a child. They also understood that these records are valuable for the insights they give into the way children in care were treated in the past.

If you do find that your file of records is very slim and the documents provide you with very limited information, it can be hurtful and you may feel very disappointed and discouraged. However, it does not need to be the end of the journey. Government departments and non- government organisations often kept many other kinds of records about the system of looking after children and about the Homes that they were responsible for. These other types of records can help you to fill in the gaps about your time in care.

Some of the records which you might want to apply for access to or ask to have reviewed for information about you are:

  • The Minutes of the meetings of the management committees of Homes.
  • Minutes of the governments’ advisory bodies – the State Children’s Council or the Children’s Welfare and Public Relief Board. These may include information about children placed in care, policies and things happening in the Homes.
  • Annual reports of the Welfare department and of non-government homes/care providers. These reports can provide a snapshot of what happened each year – the opening and closing of homes, changes in policies, and numbers of children in care which can help you to put your experiences into the context of the times.
  • Staff files – these may be files of correspondence or policy documents.
  • Matrons’ and superintendents’ reports. These can be valuable records of what was happening in a particular home at a particular time. Sometimes these reports include the names of children.
  • Histories of care providing organisations or histories of particular Homes. These might help you to understand your story by placing it into the context of the history of the Home.
  • Building plans. These might allow you to see the layout of a Home as you remember it.
  • Photographs. These may include images of the outside and inside of buildings, of staff and children.

Even if the records you receive are reasonably comprehensive, these other types of documents can give background information about the institution where you lived, its history and policies. This information can provide context for your own story and can sometimes help you to make sense of your journey through care and how it appears on the documents that have survived.

Amending or adding to records

When you receive your records, you may find that some of the information within them contradicts what you know about your story. According to Section 30 of the South Australian FOI legislation, a person can request to amend their records if they find them to be ‘incorrect, incomplete, out-of-date or misleading’. If this is the case with government records, you will need to contact Families SA to find out if, and how, you can amend your records. If your records have come from a non-government organisation, you will need to approach them again to see what their policies are in relation to making amendments.

You may also find that important pieces of your story are missing from the documents you receive, such as what happened to you between different periods of time in care or some of your experiences and achievements after leaving care. Where this is the case, you may also be given the opportunity to add information to the files an organisation or government department has about you. In this way, you can help to create a more complete picture and also make sure that your voice is included. You can play a part in constructing and preserving a more accurate record.

In the case of some records on your file (like personal letters and school reports) you may also be able to request that the original documents be handed to you. The record holder would keep a copy instead.

Elm Place can help you to make contact with the record holders to discuss any of these issues.

Understanding the jargon on records

Government records can sometimes be hard to understand. They often use jargon, shorthand or abbreviations that might not mean much to someone looking at these records years after they were created.

To help you understand your records, here is a list of terms and abbreviations that commonly appear on child welfare records from South Australia, along with explanations about what they mean.

Support for Care Leavers

Many Forgotten Australians and others who spent time in care refer to their life in care and after care as a journey. The search for records is another part of this journey and it can sometimes be a bit like a rollercoaster ride. Before, during and after your search, you may find that you need someone to talk to or someone to help you navigate the systems you are dealing with.

Elm Place (the Find & Connect Support Service at Relationships Australia SA) is a good place to find help. You can call them on the toll free number 1800 16 11 09. It is an easy number to remember as it is based on the date of the Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants on 16 November 2009.

There are also other support groups and services in South Australia who offer advice, assistance and support. Some can help you if you are searching for family or want to meet and share stories with others who spent time in the same Home. Some support groups also advocate on behalf of care leavers or provide other types of counselling or assistance.

If you click on the Contact Support & Counselling link, you will find a list of these with their contact details.


I’m glad I’ve obtained my files, because they gave me information and information gave me the empowerment to move on …
(Priscilla Taylor)

Nearly everyone reaches a moment in their life where they are looking for answers. As a Care Leaver, there are some different ways in which you may need to go about this search. Applying for your records can be one of those ways. Wherever you are on your life’s journey, you can choose to turn onto this path. It may be rocky. It will rarely be smooth. It might seem like a long upward climb, but at the top you may find a different view.