Mother and Baby Homes – records’ accessibility through the lens of Australia’s ‘Find & Connect’

In 2018, Ireland’s Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, announced that a ‘transitional justice’ approach should be developed to examine Ireland’s history of institutional care and to consider the State’s response to that legacy through ‘a truth recovery or truth telling process with victims and survivors at its core’. In reference to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the Minister noted that neglecting to do so would mean a failure ‘…in our shared moral and ethical responsibility for the past. It would also leave us with an incomplete historical record’. While the Commission’s terms of reference explicitly recognise an archival need to preserve this documentary legacy ‘…for the purpose of further historical research or examination’, the question of records’ accessibility for former residents and their families is not fully addressed.

On 5 December 2018, the Minister published the Commission’s Third Interim Report and announced that delivery of the Commission’s final report had been extended to February 2019 to accommodate analysis of the ‘vast range of documentary material relating to the institutions under investigation’. This includes the collation of records held by public and diocesan archives and those accessed through orders for discovery made on religious organisations and state authorities. On 9 January 2019, The Irish Times reported that the Commission is now seeking an extension of one year before publishing its final report. Recently there have been concerns raised that the Commission’s possession of records relevant to the investigation are impacting on the public’s rights of access. That the ‘effective operation of the work of the commission and the co-operation of witnesses’ should be used as a basis for refusing an access request stands in stark contrast to the approaches taken in other jurisdictions dealing with similar issues.

In 2007, the Scottish Parliament published the Historical Abuse Systemic Review of Residential Schools and Children’s Homes in Scotland 1950 to 1995 (the Shaw Report) identifying problems for survivors when attempting to trace records and expressed a wider concern over recordkeeping difficulties throughout the Scottish public sector. The Report’s recommendations that ‘the government should commission a review of public records legislation which should lead to new legislation being drafted to meet records and information needs in Scotland’ resulted in the Public Records (Scotland) Act 2011. The Act places a duty on the Keeper of the Records of Scotland to develop and publish a model records management plan (RMP) with stakeholder engagement seen as critical to the development of the plan and to helping the Act function correctly.

In Australia, the response has been similarly robust. Following the national apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants in 2009, the Australian government initiated the development of the Find & Connect resource as a specialised records search and support service to support former care leavers and their families. The resource developed its remit from the ‘trilogy’ of reports into the Stolen Generations (indigenous children removed from their family and community), Former Child Migrants (children shipped from the UK and Malta to countries including Australia) and Forgotten Australians (non-indigenous children who experienced institutional care) published between 1997 and 2004. The approach taken is summarised in the project’s submission to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse:

‘Decisions about records management (most importantly, decisions about releasing information in records) need to move away from questions of ownership and consideration of organisational risk, and instead adopt a rights-based framework’

In collaboration with the eScholarship Resource Centre at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Catholic University, Find & Connect worked with archivists, historians, social workers and technology staff to engage with people who had experienced institutional care as well as advocacy groups, support services, care providers, record-holders and government departments.

As a response to the National Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants, the Australian Government’s Department of Social Services developed the following best practice guidelines in providing access to records:

  • The right of every care leaver, upon proof of identity, to view all information relating to himself or herself and to receive a full copy of the same;
  • the right of every care leaver to undertake records searches, to be provided with records and the copying of records free of charge; and
  • a commitment to the flexible and compassionate interpretation of privacy legislation to allow a care leaver to identify their family and background.

The guidelines encourage record-holders to implement records access practices in a nationally consistent manner. In this context, Find & Connect acts as a support resource for record-holders and users to assist with the search for records and with other critical information held by past provider organisations and government agencies. The initiative is framed around aggregating existing records’ descriptions put into the public domain and augmenting them through:

  • comprehensive indexing and search capability to enhance accessibility;
  • supporting documentation such as organisational histories and media reports to help enhance the context of the records;
  • resources and guides for record-holders and users to assist with the search for records; and
  • awareness raising and training for record-holding staff.

To meet the needs of target audiences and to address many of the challenges associated with publishing a public knowledge resource, Find & Connect was developed to accommodate the following service design principles:

  • a standards-based content management system founded on international standards for recordkeeping and archival description;
  • an evidential framework allowing presented content to be verified or disputed by users;
  • support of persistence and meaning through time by presenting contextual information around the record with the flexibility to accommodate the development of themed stories and separate publications;
  • multiple access and reference points through the use of unique and persistent identification of resources;
  • the presentation of ‘contextually meaningful, historically valid and evidentially defensible’ resources;
  • enhanced discoverability through computer to computer data sharing;
  • a commitment to the sharing of knowledge already in the public domain; and
  • an intelligible interface that is useful, welcoming and respectful.

Find & Connect operates as a dissemination service for information provided by record-holding organisations and not a records’ repository or archive. Records that are part of an archive or a library collection are linked to a catalogue page that includes the resource and relevant metadata. The Human Rights Act 2003, the recommendations of the Ryan Report, the Commission’s terms of reference and the Minister’s announcement of a ‘transitional justice’ approach to dealing with the legacy of institutional care in Ireland presents an opportunity to assess the development of a rights-based framework that recognises records’ accessibility as a key component of efforts to redress the wrongs of the past. While solutions to the issues of accessibility to the records of the Mother and Baby Homes are still in development, the Find & Connect project represents an approach to consider on a number of fronts:

  • By focusing on records that are already in the public domain and offering guidance and support, the project was able to deliver positive impacts for both record-holding institutions and the public. Preliminary feedback has identified significant improvements in discoverability and accessibility of records, the location of previously unidentified records and improved recordkeeping efficiency within organisations.
  • The project worked with a wide variety of stakeholders including national and state archives and the record-holders of former care homes. A similar approach could be developed in conjunction with the National Archives of Ireland and bodies such as Association of Church Archives of Ireland to develop accessibility guides and share finding aids and record-holding metadata.

Addressing the legacy of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes in this way could not only complement the preservation of historical evidence it would recognise the paramount requirement of records’ accessibility for former residents and their families that should underpin any efforts by the State toward redress.

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