FamilyConnect is a website created and run by the charity Family Action, which provides practical, emotional and financial support to those who are experiencing poverty, disadvantage and social isolation across the country. In this case study Pete Williams from the UCL MIRRA project interviews Julia Feast about the resource and explores how it includes personal stories of people researching their past.

What is FamilyConnect?

FamilyConnect provides information for adults who have been adopted or in care, aiming to help them begin their journey to answer questions about their origins, adoption and time in care. These may include why they were separated from their birth family, where their care records are kept, or how they can contact people from their past. Some may simply wish to know more about their childhood experiences, as having incomplete, fragmented or only vague memories can greatly affect people’s emotional wellbeing and sense of identity. We help people explore their personal histories by providing information, guidance, support and signposting. The website was developed by Family Action in partnership with Julia Feast OBE, UCL’s MIRRA project and the Care Leavers’ Association.

How did FamilyConnect begin – what were the motivations?

In 2016 I approached Family Action, along with my colleague Caroline Thomas, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sterling, to find out if the organisation would be interested in developing a free and accessible website for adopted people and those who had been brought up in care. We had a really helpful response from the Chief Executive David Holmes, and with his commitment and Family Action’s support, the FamilyConnect website became one of their initiatives.

In 2017 I was also invited to become a member of the advisory group for the UCL MIRRA project, which looks at care leavers’ experiences regarding accessing their records, where I met Victoria Hoyle, the project’s research associate.  I told Victoria about our vision for FamilyConnect, and that it would include a resource for adult care leavers. I also mentioned my hope that it would also eventually contain a locating record database for care leavers and adopted people.

At that time MIRRA wanted to disseminate the project’s results concerning adult care leaver’s experience of accessing social care and I explained that FamilyConnect could provide the platform for this. Hence, the partnership between Family Action and UCL began, and FamilyConnect gained access to a vibrant and expanded multi-disciplinary team of academics, practitioners and people with personal experience of being in care.

As funding was not forthcoming at that time Family Action agreed to underwrite the cost of FamilyConnect, and provided an excellent team of people to create the website and edit the content. During 2019, Family Action’s content team, Victoria and I began to develop the content for FamilyConnect. It was launched in April 2020, and we are very proud of the fact that this is a unique resource for adult care leavers and those affected by adoption, particularly in an era of so many cutbacks and a lack of services for adult care leavers.  The feedback has been really positive and already it has illustrated its value by the great usage it is getting, with over 8,000 users since its launch and overwhelmingly positive feedback from users.

A pile of old family photo albums and diaries,

The site provides information for two cohorts: adopted people and care leavers. What are the distinguishing features of each, in terms of their information and support needs?

There is a specific legislative framework for adopted adults who, since 1975, have had the retrospective right to information that enables them to apply for a copy of their original birth certificates. This and the information available to them from their adoption record, can help them understand who they are and where they come from, and build a fuller sense of their identity. There are also well-established services for adopted people, including intermediary services, should they decide that they want to search and make contact with birth family members.  

For people who were brought up in care, this is not the case.

The latter have the right to make a SAR (Subject Access Request) under the Data Protection Act. However, in practice, the information they receive can be limited and doesn’t always provide a comprehensive, coherent account of their family background or their time in care.  This is because they can be so heavily redacted due to the way different agencies interpret the Data Protection Act, particularly where third-party information is concerned. As an example, someone might have been in care with his brother, and they may have been on a day trip where his brother fell over. Obviously, the care leaver would know his brother’s name and may have witnessed what happened that day. Nonetheless, the details of his brother would be deleted.

Accessing records can be a huge challenge for care leavers and it isn’t always easy to obtain the advice and support they need. They do not have access to the services they deserve.  Fortunately, the research and information provided by MIRRA, CLA and the Access to Care Records Campaign Group (ACRCG) is building a strong case for legislative change so that adult care leavers will hopefully be able to access the information and the support they need.  

Are there any respects in which the resources on the site could be used by academic researchers?

Definitely, and we hope to add relevant information specifically for professionals in the future. We need funding to add this resource and other sections that may provide a helpful resource for younger adopted people and care leavers.  

How did the process of compiling the individual ‘story’ section work? How did you find the people to feature? How easy was it for them to talk?

We know how important it is to hear about other people’s personal stories and experiences so, through the MIRRA research group, we were able to access people who had been in care and were willing to share their personal stories on the site.  Through my work with adopted people, I was also able to ask some if they would be willing to write a blog for FamilyConnect.  If people want assistance to write a blog and tell their story there is also help at Family Action to enable them to do this.  These blogs can be really helpful and prepare people about the potential outcomes, emotions and challenges they may encounter.

FamilyConnect also contains a very powerful video that was produced by ‘Research in Practice’ about two care leavers and their experience of accessing and receiving the records relating to the time they were in care. Watch it here.

Have you had any feedback from the people who have made these contributions?

In each of these cases the people who write or appear in the blogs have the chance to sign off their contributions before publication, so we can ensure they are completely happy with the way their stories are represented. In general, however, FamilyConnect has received some very positive feedback about its usefulness and what a worthwhile and much-needed resource it is, with some of the site feedback including:

  • “Excellent, user-friendly, full of helpful and practical information as well as guides and signposting to other services. Well done in getting this all updated and relevant into the future”
  • “This page felt like you were talking directly to me.  Thankyou x”
  • “Very informative and provides historical perspective at a glance”
  • “Detailed explanation in simple language-easy to understand”
  • “Sensitively written and well explained”
  • “Well explained and explores different aspects which is good”
  • “The information is really easy to read with clear advice”

Is there anything else you wish to say about FamilyConnect?

It’s a great partnership.  We have a team of academics, social work practitioners, researchers, media professionals and content creators involved. It is an invaluable tool and a cost-effective and efficient way of making sure people begin to understand their rights and where to look to find the information they need. However, I believe its most valuable asset is the contributions made by its users – both through the blogs they contribute, which highlight why the website is so valuable to them – and through the word of mouth promotion they give the site. It’s a project born of passion and dedication, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

Further information

Access to Care Records group is an association of individuals dedicated to providing better access to care records for Care Leavers, by lobbying government for changes in law and regulation.

UCL MIRRA: Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access

About Georgina Brewis

Professor of Social History at UCL
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