2013: Getting it Right; Getting it Wrong: Archives, Internet, Oral History, and Accessibility in the ‘Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children’ project

Craig Fees, “Getting it Right; Getting it Wrong: Archives, Internet, Oral History, and Accessibility in the ‘Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children’ project”

Prepared for Reclaiming Lost Childhoods – Seminar 3
“The Past Online: Developing a Web-based Care Archive”
5th September 2013, University of Strathclyde

[The paper itself wasn’t delivered, as the car seized up and became a write-off on the motorway just outside Birmingham on the way to the seminar]

Earlier this year I had a desperate phone call from a former “disturbed” child (I hope you can see my inverted commas) who had taken part in the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project, and who had contributed memories to what was supposed to be a private area of the website – a password-protected area for members of her community only. The memories themselves were not particularly exceptional in the context of the horrors and difficulties experienced by other children we’ve interviewed, who were subsequently taken into care and termed “maladjusted”, in the language of those days; but these memories had somehow come to the attention of people she knew, and thence particular relatives with whom she was still in close communication, and then all hell broke loose. The emails to me were panicked and distraught; the phone call after the piece had been taken down and erased from online archives, was painful. And yet —

A bit of context: The Planned Environment Therapy Trust is a fairly small charity founded in 1966 by a small group of therapists and residential workers, with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of planned environment therapy, supporting its work, and those who do it, and generally spreading the word.

‘Planned environment therapy’ is a pre-war term which is almost cognate with the term ‘milieu therapy’, and close enough to the post-War term ‘therapeutic community’ to have been largely supplanted by it.

It’s a complex term, but as I understand it, ‘planned environment therapy’ sees the individual, within a social context, as a whole being whose response to experiences and contexts has made them unusually self-destructive and/or other-destructive – and often, paradoxically, their behaviour is disturbing, destructive, and/or delinquent as a mode not just of survival or defense but of seeking from the environment the relationships and tools of security, support and growth they need to outgrow their disturbing, destructive, and/or delinquent behaviour. But they are reaching out or retreating in a way that many many people and even more everyday structures of social organisation – individual classrooms and whole schools, for example, as well as families (natural, foster or otherwise) – find it difficult to respond to without abandoning their own identities and/or becoming ferocious, destructive, isolating and excluding in relation to the child, not to say punitive. Making matters worse.

To meet the needs of this person, or to stand any chance of meeting the needs and thereby unlocking serial processes of self-realisation and fulfillment of possibility, a purposely designed, highly structured but paradoxically deeply creative therapeutic environment that uses the full environment of relationships and experience to engage the child’s drive to be with others and grow is required: A thoughtful, focused, intentional, intuitive, planned environment, intent on meeting the child where they are, and introducing a journey in which the child, the adults around them, the other children, and the place itself are necessarily transformed: But within a framework of continuity, reliability and trust, and realised through a shared culture of language, symbols, rituals, structures, celebrations and so on, developing senses of identity and identification, of belonging and growth, of the regular and safe movement of time, and of security throughout and despite and because of the processes of massive personal and institutional transitions.

These ‘therapeutic cultures’, which define the therapeutic communities, are real and fully lived, and remain part of the child’s (and adult’s) lives and identities throughout their lives, for better or worse; indeed, the people become family or like family; the places Home or like Home: Places and people to reject or return to, to measure one’s life and changes against, to be profoundly a part of or apart from, to touch base with – in teens, twenties, forties, sixties….

But they are also institutions: They are not just good enough families, or ‘home’. They may be formers and holders of an individual’s sense of self and foundation, but they can also be islands, part of an archipelago of institutions in a childhood/life, which can themselves change and be changed. They can become places that are entirely unfamiliar, with people who are unknown and unknowing of the person. They can be closed, they can disappear, and the records and memories they hold can be lost, dispersed, fragmented, destroyed. It can even become as if the place, the people, the children themselves never were; that they never existed. Which means the children themselves cease in a sense to exist.

So, in 1989 the Planned Environment Therapy Trust met what seemed at the time an irresistible loss of memory, history, heritage, archives and experience relating to therapeutic work with children, young people, and adults, by establishing an Archive and Study Centre devoted to the field and its culture as such, in rural Gloucestershire. To cut across 20-something years, the Archive and Study Centre now has well over 200 archive collections of all dimensions and types of material, from one item to a roomful; from paintings, to furniture, to logbooks, to keepsakes, to client files, to film, to digital media…and so on. If it holds memory and experience; if it speaks someone’s story (even if we do not yet know the person or the story) – if it is part of this world, and has no secure home elsewhere – , we will try to gather it in.

There is a much longer story here; but if the PETT Trustees had not acted in 1989 as they did, there is a great deal of the archival history of this record-vulnerable field, and a great deal of unique personal memory which would have been completely lost. Oral history was a fundamental part of the work from the beginning; and you will not be surprised to hear that many of the people we have recorded are now dead; and, indeed, there are people they talk about who exist nowhere else; and most of the places they spoke about no longer exist, except in the lives of former children and decreasing numbers of staff – who are not as dispersed and separated as they used to be, thanks to the Internet -; but whose lives and histories and relationships often still reflect a fragmentation – islands of absence – a not-existence.

And that, effectively, is where the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” came in.

The Archive opened its first website in 1996 and experienced in a new way the enormity of loss out in the world, and the deep practical and emotional importance of memory, of sometimes simply knowing ‘Yes I am’ – A woman in America phoned who had inexplicably been abandoned by her happily married husband of many years, whose few left-behinds included an incomprehensible reference to a place he had never spoken about – a therapeutic community in England in which he’d spent a significant part of his childhood – but had never mentioned – which she’d found referenced on our website. What could we tell her? Similarly, in a way, a local authority rang to find out if a children’s home mentioned on the website had once been their responsibility – and, indeed, in the archives we had one letter, the letterhead of which gave the County Education Department on the return address. Yes, it was. An elderly lady phoned up on the prompting of her children, who had found us on a predecessor of Google; and we could finally confirm that the children’s community – of which she had memories and of which she had spoken over many years, but almost as if it couldn’t have happened – had, indeed, existed – there was even a book – she hadn’t made it all up. And so on.

Leaping ahead more than a decade and cutting across a long story, in 2010 we were awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a project called “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children: An oral history of residential therapeutic child care c. 1930 – c. 1980”, which brought together the Internet, oral history, archives, and people from former communities, who came together for residential events we called “Archive Weekends” – immersions in their community and its archives and history. Ideally, Internet-wise, we would have had a sophisticated database system which could have sucked all the metadata-tagged oral histories and archives in, and then delivered them tailored to queries either locally at the Archive itself – for especially sensitive, personal and confidential materials, made available only to the subject themselves – ; or through any Internet-connected computer, for open/unrestricted materials. If you were at a particular children’s home between 1957 and 1962, for example, and wanted only material and all available material from your time there, it would deliver it in an accessible structure – photographs, documents, recordings. If you wanted all material across the database related just to yourself, similarly. Or if you had a general or thematic query – all material relating to mealtimes across the entire database, for example, you could call that up – a system for former children, family members, but academics and researchers as well, as well as the general public. The cost – or, rather, the cost of the specialised person to put it together and run it – defeated us.

But the Internet was nevertheless at the core of “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” from its inception, as well as the vision of making as much material available and accessible as it was technically, legally, and safely possible to do.

Website-wise: We had one over-arching main project website – a place for general business, introductions and more generic information. And we had individual websites for each of the participating communities. For the purposes of the project we focused on five specific communities for children for which the Archive held significant archive and/or other material (although we did expand, ultimately, to a total of eight community websites). For those of you who know your Content Management Systems, the Main Site, and each of the Community sites, was a complete, individual Joomla installment, with audio and video and other tools, and, of course, the facility for password-protected layers and content, as well as public areas.

For others: Joomla is a free and open source, comparatively user-friendly (and increasingly user-friendly), and versatile database-driven system for building and managing a website. Our goal was to have a website for each community, and for each Community website to be managed and populated by members of the community itself, trained and in a position to take control of and responsibility for the site, supported where needed by the Archive, but up to an including independence from the project.

I should back up here and say a bit more about the underlying principles of the project.

In the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” Overview/foundation document, what might be considered its constitution – or the preamble to a constitution (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…), it’s stated:

“This is a project which is to be led and guided by former children, young people and staff from residential therapeutic environments. It will involve them, together with family and friends, as interviewees, as interviewers, and to help carry the project forward generally.”

This approach has a number of implications, as pointed out in the “Final Report” to the Heritage Lottery Fund in a section entitled “Key decisions: Therapy? No. Research? No.” With emphasis on the “No”.

The Final Report is a comprehensive and detailed account of the history, design, experiences, outcomes and lessons learned from the project, and goes on to say:

At the same time, and quite intentionally, the project was organised from the Archive, and focused on oral history; and while some people might or might not experience participation and outcomes as ‘therapeutic’, the project team, and the project design, were very clear that they were not doing therapy. Nor were they doing research. The primary function of an Archive, and in this instance an oral history project conducted from within and for an Archive, is to gather, preserve, manage and make available materials for others to learn from and use. These two cornerstones, clearly re-stated throughout the project, were an essential feature of the project design: It was not therapy, and it was not research. It was “a major oral history-centred project relating to life and work in therapeutic residential environments for traumatised, deprived, and delinquent children and young people between about 1930 and 1980”, to quote the ‘Overview’ again; an exploration of a particular area of the nation’s history and heritage with, for, and by people who were not subjects of the project but participants, and even better, colleagues and co-workers in it.

This was the principle behind our approach to the Internet. Where needed we would train willing participants in Joomla, and the other tasks that can feed into a website – recording, transcribing, editing, digitising, cataloguing, writing, creating digital stories, and so on. And then, with the principle of making as much available as legally, technically and safely possible, and with whatever necessary support, community members themselves would generate content, and act themselves as gatekeepers and moderators for their websites: They knew their communities best – they best knew the people, and what they wanted from the website. At the most basic they would become excited by documents or items which, left to me or another member of the project team, might have been overlooked and certainly not prioritised, and would not have made their way with proper alacrity to the website.

In terms of ‘safely’ and ‘legally’: What would appear to an outsider to be an innocuous reference in the minutes of a school meeting, might actually – to members of the community – be a cryptic, explosive, dangerous reference which should not be published. The converse could also be true, and here the Data Protection Act raises its head, and the need to work together as colleagues: All the members of the community might know or not think it controversial that a certain member of staff had had a mental breakdown or marital problems or an alcohol addiction, or, indeed, that a fellow child had gone on to a criminal career and prison or spent time in a psychiatric unit; but would that make it right to name them or make it possible to identify them in the published website?

What if the information was in the published headmaster’s report of 1957, when these things were printed and bound, and presumably distributed? Embedded in an information-rich source, should it not be in the public domain?

Getting it right: Getting it wrong

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on what we got right. People can go to the Final Report and to the project website, to see what’s said and done there. The project has won two awards, the Community Archives and Heritage Group’s 2012 “Most Impactful Archive” award, and Your Family History Magazine’s 2013 “Archive of the Year Award.” In presenting the latter, the Executive Editor, Nick Barratt, said “This, to me, is the essence of family history – practical, small scale and life changing”. You can see two of the Community websites which are run entirely by their communities, with technical support only when needed – http://www.wenningtonschool.org.uk and http://communities.pettrust.org.uk/caldecott [NB: Now http://www.caldecottcommunity.org.uk]. The fact that more things didn’t go obviously wrong than did, in such a complex project, is a getting-it-right in itself; and is down, of course, to the people – participants and project team -, but also the project design, the approach, the thinking, and the many many different kinds of meeting and discussion which went on, the whole time.

In getting things wrong, there is a longer conversation to be had, and a variety of different kinds of ‘getting it wrong’. I will try to indicate some of it here.

Very early on in the project we held an event which involved a number of ordinary volunteers as well as some former children. Reporting it on the website, with photographs and names, I almost immediately had an email asking to be put in touch with one of the volunteers. The getting-it-right was not putting him in touch; as he turned out to be a highly Internet-skilled stalker. The wrong is obvious: People and things can not be taken for granted, especially given the Internet’s omnivorous searchable capacity.

However user-friendly a Content Management System like Joomla might be, it is far from intuitive for most people, and an alien world and concept for very very many. Even if one is positively disposed to the concepts and toolkits, the concentration it requires, the time it devours, the almost inevitable frustrations it throws up make it a hard journey, even for those with high tolerance levels, sustained motivation, and time. That’s one among a number of issues affecting control and management of their community websites by Community members themselves. Another: The system is not going to be learned in one training, even with a well-qualified trainer, and even in an all-day training: where it worked best, it required multiple all-day trainings, working-with, on-demand, over a period of time. By and large, the Community websites did not get taken over by their members; and we didn’t have the time and the resources to support them to an extent that it would have made it possible.

Those ‘control of the website’ questions are perhaps less likely to arise with the project up here in Scotland. But I would guess this one is, and has already been taken on board: The emotion that can be invested in one’s childhood and life and any information which might be connected to it should not be underestimated. There is potential for immense anger and frustration in small detail. I personally got it wrong more than once, and sometimes not right. Getting it wrong: by my lack of appreciation of the significance and need for information that was in my ‘control’ as an archivist; by not making information available readily online or in person which could have been made available – a not seeing, and not appreciating of priorities, alluded to before. A clumsiness of understanding. And getting it not-right: Genuinely not having the time, not having the resources, to make material available in an accessible form in a timely manner: asking someone to put a potentially opening door into themselves on hold. There is a separate but related question of being responsible through the Data Protection Act as a data controller for specifically not making information available; which should not be anyone’s starting point, by the way, and can only be made ‘right’, to the extent that it can, through clarity, explanation, and discussion.

And there is the experience with which I opened this presentation: The person whose information became available to her family. There are a number of people who don’t want others to know that they were in a special school or therapeutic community. This was not an instance of that kind. It was to do with the memories themselves. I concluded the introduction to this earlier by saying “And Yet – “. There isn’t much “And Yet” you can add to an experience as devastating as this. But the technical solution came from the person herself. She was an administrator/manager of her community’s website. Once the initial shock of distress had passed – I was away and wasn’t contactable – she recovered her password and details and deleted the webpage herself. Insofar as there is any light to be taken from this event, it is in the fact that she had at least that control over her material, and used it.

 

The detailed Final Report on the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project can be downloaded (for free) from the project website: http://www.otherpeopleschildren.org.uk, as can an excellent project brochure. [NB: Now archived on the UK WebArchive: http://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20130404212609/http://www.otherpeopleschildren.org.uk/]

The Final Report is also available in hardcopy form from lulu.com – pricey, but a purchase goes to help support the Archive: http://www.lulu.com/shop/craig-fees/therapeutic-living-with-other-peoples-children-final-report/paperback/product-21119242.html

The hardcopy Project Brochure is available from The Planned Environment Therapy Trust, Church Lane, Toddington near Cheltenham, Glos. GL54 5DQ