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Access to Records for Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants

Information Access Principles and Best Practice Guidelines

Late in December I was thrilled to see the publication of Access to Records by Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants: Access Principles and Best Practice Guidelines – the result of a significant piece of work for me and others in 2015.

Acacia Verniciflua

Published by the Commonwealth Department of Social Security, the Principles and Guidelines are part of the response to the National Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants, and address a number of the recommendations relating to records access made in the Forgotten Australians: A report on Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children August 2004 (Senate Inquiry).

So, why am I excited by this publication? Well, together with some fantastic people on the Records Access Working Group of the Find and Connect Project, we worked long and hard to identify the complexities inherent in ensuring access to records of individual’s time in out of home care. The multiple jurisdictions, and complexities of needing to analyse over 50 individual pieces of legislation to establish access warrants, and then identifying ‘real’ vs perceived barriers was really challenging.

At the same time we all approached the work with the aspiration of enabling greater, more uniform and more humane access to records that document individual’s time in ‘care’.

ACCESS PRINCIPLES

The Access Principles set out the general intentions in 12 statements:

  1. Principle 1: Maximum provision of access to records
  2. Principle 2: All information about themselves, and core identifying information about close family
  3. Principle 3: Provision of copies of records
  4. Principle 4: No fees or charges for access to records containing personal information
  5. Principle 5: Time limits to respond to requests for records
  6. Principle 6: Ability to seek review or appeal a decision
  7. Principle 7: Records will be provided in context and applicants alerted to possible causes of distress
  8. Principle 8: Right to know about support and assistance services
  9. Principle 9: Care Leavers may annotate records to tell their story and express their wishes to limit access to records
  10. Principle 10: Applicants entitled to use support services to assist
  11. Principle 11: Records holders will work collaboratively to enhance access
  12. Principle 12: Government state or territory records holders are the repository of last resort.

BEST PRACTICE GUIDELINES

The best practice guidelines deal, in some detail, with a range of things which can cause problems for access to records, and offer strategies for dealing with these (?), organised into 5 sections:

  1. Section 1: Identifying the Care Leaver community, needs and expectations
  2. Section 2: What information can I give to Care Leavers?
  3. Section 3: The mechanics of processing applications for access
  4. Section 4: Providing information to Care Leavers
  5. Section 5: Providing support services to Care Leavers accessing records.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE KNOTTY ISSUES?

Amongst the really knotty issues we explored were:

  • Why can’t we just open the records to individual Care Leavers? The reasonably radical suggestion was made just to open the records to Care Leavers on application. The specific population which is targeted by the Principles and Guidelines is an aging population. Many of them are seeking answers to fundamental questions of identity and family. We have precedents for opening records in the archival institution’s response to the Stolen Generation’s report, and the world did not come to an end, and there is no documented case where an individual abused the special access provided. Despite provisions to enable administrative access arrangements in most jurisdictions, this was, however, a step too far for the records holders. One for the future….
  • Problems of third party privacy: Just what is personal information? We started with the proposition that personal information can belong to more than one person – that my mother’s name is her personal information, but it’s also my personal information. Using this logic we managed to get agreement to loosen up interpretations about what can be released without time consuming and extensive consultation. We also talked to Privacy and Information Commissioners across Australia about the need to issue some uniform guidance on this issue.
  • Redaction: We all know that certain parts of records can be blocked out (redacted) – mainly to protect third party privacy. But when Care Leavers receive inconsistently redacted material, or can find the information redacted using tools like Trove, or by comparing their redacted records with those of their siblings: well you see the problem. Achieving uniformity here is going to remain a challenge because of the document by document need for someone to apply their own judgement. We did establish a mechanism for peer consultation about redaction. We also addressed mechanisms to assist Care Leavers to understand what was redacted and why – away from the blanket statements ‘because of section xyz of the Freedom of Information Act’ which is written in legalese which is daunting to many Care Leavers and not informative!
  • Identity: Many Care Leavers have trouble with proving identity – they were removed from family and often the documentation about their lives is fragmented and difficult to come by. Some very pragmatic tests were devised to overcome the usual requirement for 100 points of identity.
  • Location of the records: of course the fabulous Find and Connect Web Resource has done a terrific job to identify what institutions hold records relevant to Care Leavers. But there are also many stories of records that end up in private hands or out of sight and therefore inaccessible to Care Leavers. By making the State the repository of last resort (that is, when an institution ceases to exist, ceases to provide services and there is no logical institutional successor) the records can remain known about and accessible.
  • What rights do individuals have? We debated this one long and hard. The two areas we discussed in greatest detail were the right of an individual to restrict access and the right to request destruction of records about themselves. Some rights to express wishes around access were negotiated, but able to be overridden by records holders according to documented criteria (health reasons, legal reasons). We were less successful in getting agreement on the right to have records destroyed. This remains a controversial area, but there remains individual avenues to request this to the records regulators of each State/Territory, who have discretion around disposal. Not in these Principles and Guidelines, though….

WHAT’S NEXT?

These Principles and Guidelines have been accepted by the cross-jurisdictional working party and the Find and Connect Project Group, and now by the Minister for Social Services. But these bodies/individuals have no power to enforce them – access to records is a state/territory or private/faith-based institutional decision. So the next stage of the process is getting adoption of the Principles and Guidelines by individual jurisdictions.

It’s really pleasing to note that this document has been referenced in exhibits and testimony to the current Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse, and is now available on the web. A recordkeeping consultation paper is in development by the Royal Commission to keep attention focussed on recordkeeping problems of all kinds in institutions responsible for children.

On the other hand, it’s so frustrating: we’ve had the problems and issues around access to records, and empowering individuals with some form of agency over their records, for nearly 20 years. It almost seems that the incremental approach using existing rules and laws is futile given the snail’s pace of change.

These Principles and Guidelines are part of a wider challenge to all recordkeeping professionals to think very innovatively about what client-centric recordkeeping actually looks like: and it is not something that is restricted to dealing with old and existing records!

Access to Records by Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants: Access Principles and Best Practice Guidelines is licensed Creative Commons CC-BY, and can be downloaded from https://www.dss.gov.au/families-and-children/programmes-services/family-relationships/find-and-connect-services-and-projects/access-to-records-by-forgotten-australians-and-former-child-migrants-access-principles-for-records-holders-best-practice-guidelines-in-providing-access

Science Fiction and the Information Manager

Jocasta Nu

Ah, holidays! Is there a better time to get out and see a movie then in the Christmas break? And the recent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens reminded me of Jocasta Nu, the chief archivist of the Jedi Archives. And of course the role of records and their recording technologies re-emerges in the latest in the Star Wars saga (no spoilers being given here, we expect you to know the reference!). It always fascinates me seeing my profession being depicted in movies, especially as I am unable to explain adequately to my friends and family what I actually do. I was once banished from the room when a scene of a DVD we were watching depicted the identification of a record that had been destroyed, and I babbled excitedly about how important disposal authorities are and how wonderful there was sufficient metadata for the protagonist to find a trace of the destroyed record.

While the representation of records managers, archivist and librarians can be painfully stereotypical (think female, grey hair in a bun, authoritarian gaze and shushing), they can also demonstrate the need and importance of these professions. The role of knowledge keeper or sage is a well-known and used trope in science fiction, and this role often provides the pivotal information (or withhold this information) from the protagonist. In effect, information managers are vital to many science fiction stories.

Mistress Nu, for example, is a hackneyed depiction of a grey-haired archivist, however her character illustrates a well-respected individual who was a fully-fledged member of the Jedi council and a warrior in her own right. Her ability to control access to the Holcron Vault makes her extremely powerful, and her practical understanding of the operations of the Jedi makes her a particularly effective information manager.

But unfortunately Mistress Nu was a victim of her own hubris – “If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” Turns out that this was somewhat of an exaggeration.

If science fiction is an imagined possible future then what will be different or indeed the same in that future? Depressingly, if the film genre is any guide, there will still be endless stacks in the future, despite digitisation. However, as Sara Tompson from the University of Southern California stated, “Information professionals like to know things and organize things. The downside of these traits can be aversion to change. Exploring science fiction can free us to think outside of our everyday boxes!”