Case Studies: Sarah Print

ADVOCACY WORK WITH SARAH  (name has been changed  to protect confidentiality)

Sarah came to the In Care service with the clear idea that she wanted help to access records of her time in care from the age of 5 onwards, it was something she had thought of doing over the years. Sarah had experienced abuse in her family of origin, and also during a foster care placement.

A vital part of the work I undertake with any client in the time leading up to accessing the records is about planning for hard times, and mustering resources. Thinking things through with the client about whether the process of accessing records  will be too distressing and whether the impact  will maybe drive a person into habitual patterns of coping - perhaps along well worn paths which lead to disintegration and further chaos. This is a legitimate concern when working with a client group who are all too often vulnerable, or have histories of complex trauma and complex mental health problems. For example , in Sarah’s case there was a pattern over the years of depression, alcohol abuse and of entering into relationships of extreme domestic violence.

Questions about how and if a person will cope with the process -what  inner and outer resources  are available to the person  and  how will they  manage their expectations of what might be contained in the records need to be explored  because records vary enormously in volume and content and may contain a disappointing lack of information or overwhelming amounts  , also the way in which records are accessed varies in each authority and agency and there may be lengthy delays or requests for documents such as birth certificates which are lost or passports which don’t exist.
Sarah knew that her abuse had been bad enough for her to be hospitalised and had been told there were photos of her five year old body battered black and blue contained in her medical records; whether the social work records would answer her questions about what had happened to her  was an unknown. It is this sort of experience of approaching potential overwhelm which can be very destabilising during the preparation period, especially when combined with rising levels of frustration which may be felt during the wait; people  usually require regular and sustained support during this time.

For me it remains vital to balance these  thoughts  of caution and potential disaster with the indisputable right of the person to choose to access their records and a sense of respect for the clients own ability to endure , weather and integrate their experience . That is why my work is done in a wholly collaborative way which pays attention to helping a person stay in control of what happens .Sarah is a survivor and one of Sarah’s many strengths  is her determination to  enjoy life , to make up for her lost youth and live to the full.
When Sarah began the process of accessing her records she was in a relationship but during the weeks leading up to the retrieval of her records the relationship ended badly , and having discussed the possibility that looking at her records at this point could be ‘too much’ , Sarah chose to suspend the process until she felt on a more even keel.

In practical terms  this ‘wobbly’ period  involved her securing her tenancy in her own name and clearing up debts accumulated by her partner. During this period Sarah would cancel appointments and phone up in crisis and I would  offer a listening ear, encourage her sense of competency and make sure Sarah was getting help from the appropriate local agencies which already exist to sort these housing issues out. A case of first things first.
A couple of months later when the dust had settled Sarah decided to go ahead again , during this period Sarah had had  further fallings out  with her estranged mother  who Sarah thought did not want the past raked up.

The records were recovered  quickly  and they were substantial– Sarah chose to have them delivered to the In Care Service and then brought to her home where Sarah had arranged for a longstanding friend to be present so that she would have company in the aftermath . We had discussed the potential overwhelm and ways to break the experience down into bite size chunks but Sarah just wanted to read right through and go straight to the nitty gritty.

It was a very emotional experience which went as well as we could have expected .
We arranged to meet weekly to support Sarah through what was now clearly going to be a ‘fall out’ period
A few days after when I visited Sarah, she told me she had been drinking heavily and had strewn the records all over the room in a burst of anger when drunk.

When the records were first opened her friend  had numbered all the sheets –  a useful lesson.

With Sarah’s permission I put the pages back in order  and hole punched them into two A4 files. Sarah  seemed visibly relieved to witness them being contained again in front of her eyes.

In the weeks following the record retrieval we continued to work on ways Sarah could find some sense of grounding and regulate her emotional states a bit more. Ongoing training in trauma recovery resourced me as a worker , along with regular supervision.

When Sarah started to feel a depressive slump she went to visit her G.P and has chosen to engage with a local addiction team to address her alcohol problem rather than take antidepressants. For the moment Sarah feels she is getting back a sense of control with her drinking patterns, but without the crutch of alcohol she feels very emotional and sometimes  very raw and confused.

Another of Sarah’ s strengths is her creative streak, I was able to refer Sarah to a home decorating project which meets twice weekly and is proving really helpful in providing a creative focus and combating incredible isolation which Sarah identifies as one of the main drivers  contributing to her problems - on the days when she has company she feels she copes, but not for the rest of the time. Sarah is used to putting on a brave face but I feel  ICSSS needs to be here for the long haul in what is necessarily  long term recovery work.

This is what Sarah had to say about the service she received and her experience of obtaining her records.

I felt a great sense of relief , I couldn’t have done it on my own because it would have been too much – it really helped knowing there was somebody there, to help me get them and then understand all the bits that were missing . I didn’t like all the blanked out third party bits , like they’d erased part of my story.

I suppose it was both a negative and a positive experience, it made me understand who was who and who said what at the time and more importantly who was telling the truth because it’s all there in black and white. Court reports , school reports , medical reports , everything
It’s had an affect on my family relationships, stopped some of the blaming and wondering and the keeping going over and over everything in my head and living in the past. It’s probably left me with as many questions as I had before , but they’re different one’s.

I feel a wee bit more strength to look at things in a new light, I can see how come I ended up in relationships where there was domestic violence better and it helps me understand my ex partner better , cos I can see how his bad history made him the way he is. I feel proud that I can understand things better , both myself and other people.

When you’ve got your own answers things are different.