One of the key archival issues the "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children" project set out to tackle was the problem of the Data Protection Act, both in its specific terms, and in the more general miasma it has created around personal files, amplifying a built in conservatism when it comes to sharing information with former children in care and other 'vulnerable' people, whose access to information in files about them threatens to destabilise institutional equilibrium.
We were aware, as archivists and oral historians, of the enormous absence which lives inside persons who, as children, find themselves torn out of the ground of the everyday and grafted into a strange new life; who may thrive there, or who may find themselves pulled up again and re-grafted elsewhere, sometimes many times; but who find in documents, files, and the memories of people who once knew them a promise of Something which the rest of us take for granted; and which we therefore can't imagine their need for: Until the power of it is encountered. The need is so powerful that it is never entirely rational; and it presents challenges which a traditionally imagined and structured archives service is not designed to meet, especially when encumbered by the involuted language of the Data Protection Act, and the threat everywhere of legal action if you get the interpretation of the Act and its various Guidances wrong.
The principle of giving access as freely as possible to those people for whom it means most; vs. the Dark Abyss of its consequences. The "Other People's Children" project was designed to work this boundary: to find the real as opposed to the imagined legal and moral limits of the possible; to engage the subjects themselves in the process; and to test and establish protocols and procedures which could then be shared and used by other archive services, to reduce the risk and effort required by others to legally and safely open up as much material to its subjects as possible; and in that way to address, as far as humanly and institutionally possible, that great absence, which subtracts so much from the well-being and happiness of the world.
That project began in 2010. It was not, in its own terms, fully successful; something partly discussed in the Final Report of the "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children" project. "Institutions" are people, expressed in particular ways; and former children, and archivists, and oral historians, and other people are all expressions of institutionalisations whose differences require more time, and more emotional and intellectual resources to bring into full communication, than we had, given all of the other work and issues being handled at the time. But what was personally significant for me was a phone call that a cousin I didn't know I had, in America, received from someone purporting to be working on behalf of the United States government, and seeking relatives of the late Capt. Rodger Alan Fees to take DNA samples by which his remains might be identified. As my brother and I are pretty well present on the Internet, and on the face of it are more closely related to our father than a distant until-then unknown cousin (who had just moved in to her new house in a new town, adding to the mystery), my initial reaction included "barge pole" and "don't touch". As it turned out, however, the query was legitimate. The American government has a program of finding and bringing home all of its lost servicemen and women, from whatever conflict or war (including the American Civil War); and they needed mitochondrial DNA, the kind most strongly passed down through the maternal side, to potentially identify him. So Paul and I and our sister were less useful than my cousin or, in the end, my Aunts, my father's sisters.
But the inference I drew from this contact was that they had found remains, and they thought they might be my father's. They hadn't; it was part of a long-term project of building a database; establishing an archive for identification. But a hole, which covered a chasm, had been opened up; a charnel house of memories which coincided nicely with the issues, the anger, the uncertainties and unknowns, and the hopes, and joys and devastations we were exploring with archives and oral history in the "Therapeutic Living With Other People's Children" project.
[Originally blog-published January 19, 2013]