This is one of those hypothetical musings – challenges that I set for myself – what would I do if….????
As a researcher who undertakes family history research on behalf of others, I am privy to information from the ‘client’ regarding their knowledge of the family and all its secrets. Sometimes they are prepared to “hang out the dirty laundry” in order to fully apprise me of all that they know. Out of respect for the client, this information is kept private. All families have secrets but some can be more damaging than others.
In the course of the investigation, I have come across at least three other people researching the same family. Two are apparently related to each other but the connection to the family in question is unknown, yet I have been provided with their contact information by a third party organisation because the nature of their enquiry matched mine.
Ethical Question 1:
Was it appropriate for that information to be given to me?
Ethical Question 2:
Should I use the personal contact information to get in contact and find out what they know?
The third person contacted me recently. My query in a public forum had attracted the attention of this person and they subsequently made contact suggesting a relationship with the person I was seeking. In order to ascertain whether or not there was common ground, I did a quick search based on the information revealed in the initial contact and discovered that there certainly seemed to be enough similarity to support the existence of a relationship with my client’s family.
I contacted my client and advised them of what had come to light. Knowing there was much about this person whom I was researching that could be considered sensitive in nature, I was seeking guidance from my client as to how much I could reveal of the story and whether any contact between these two living relatives was appropriate.
It was suggested I use my best judgement regarding the deceased but the client wanted no contact or revelation of personal contact details of the living, especially their own. If my research is correct, these two people have the same grandmother, yet neither knew of the others’ existence.
Ethical Question 3:
How much information do I pass on to the person who contacted me to assure them of the correctness of the link?
I am aware that I have been asked to use my best judgement – but that leaves me open to saying too little or too much… its the classic “rock and a hard place” scenario! WHat I might hand over may well reveal the identity of my client! I can prove the marriage that is in question – I have the documents. I can prove the birth of the child – I have the original certificate. I cannot prove the divorce yet but there was one – both parties remarried as is evidenced by the newly found cousins.
Given the relatively recent nature of some of these events, files, certificates, and case notes are embargoed under the various levels of privacy protection in place in Australian legislation. Despite having been firmly told that once a person is dead, they have no right to privacy any longer, Australian record keeping does offer levels of protection of privacy that span many years after the event. Court records and records of institutional care (both child protection and penal) are often sealed for long periods and it requires a little lateral thinking to establish whether a divorce, a trial or a jail term did, in fact, take place.
Yep…. its one of those curly ones…. complicated by some disturbing and raw experiences. There’s children in care, questions of parentage, possible interracial marriages, midnight flits, child sexual abuse, jail terms, suicides, extra martial affairs, divorces, dislocated and damaged family members who can no longer communicate with each other as the pain is too great. When you are stuck in the middle of this, trying to help one bring some closure to what is past and to give them a chance to move on, a curve ball like this revelation of a whole new family line is a hard one to catch!
What would you do?