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8.18 Life Story Books Guidance

RELATED CHAPTER

My Guide to Adoption - Guidance for Social Workers

AMENDMENT

In April 2017, this chapter was updated including reflecting feedback from adoptive parents.


Contents

  1. What is a Life Story Book?
  2. Why do Life Story Work?
  3. What do Children Get from Life Story Work?
  4. Who Should Write the Life Story Book?
  5. What Materials are Needed?
  6. What Goes Into the Life Story Book?
  7. Foster Carers / Residential Staff
  8. Using the Life Story Book
  9. Children who are Adopted

    Further Information


1. What is a Life Story Book?

All children with a plan for adoption must have a Life Story Book. Life story work and background history letters (see Later Life Letter Procedure) are a very important part of the adoption process for all children, as they help the child to make sense of his/her past.

The child’s social worker needs to begin to plan the child’s life story as soon as possible once they come into care, not just when an Adoption Plan is agreed. Whether or not the plan later becomes adoption, the child will almost certainly benefit from the information and photographs being gathered together.

Where the child is not ready, information must be gathered for the child for later in life. Missed or inadequate information can lead to disruptions, or gaps for the child and carers.

To do life story work effectively takes effort, time and commitment. Anyone undertaking this work needs to try to ensure they are given the space to do it well. Likewise, a comprehensive background letter takes considerable thought, time and effort to produce.

Making a Life Story Book is more than creating a photograph album with identifying sentences giving dates, places and names. It is an account of a child's life in words, pictures and documents, and an opportunity to explore emotions through play, conversation and counselling.

A Life Story Book should:

  • Keep as full a chronological record as possible of a child's life;
  • Integrate the past into the future so that childhood makes sense;
  • Provide a basis on which a continuing Life Story can be added to;
  • Be something the child can return to when he/she needs to deal with old feelings and clarify and/or accept the past;
  • Increase a child's sense of self and self-worth;
  • Provide a structure for talking to children about painful issues;
  • Contain balanced and relevant information;
  • Someone other than the author (e.g. Team Manager, member of the Adoption Service) should check the Life Story Book to ensure it is easy to understand, and that there are no gaps.


2. Why do Life Story Work?

Children who live with their birth families have the opportunity to know about their past and to clarify past events in terms of the present. Children separated from their birth families are often denied this opportunity; they may have changed families, social workers, homes and neighbourhoods. Their past may be lost, much of it even forgotten.

When children lose track of their past, they may well find it difficult to develop emotionally and socially. If adults cannot or do not discuss this past with them, it is reasonable for children to suppose that it may be bad.

Life story work is an attempt to give back some of this past to children separated from their family of origin. Gathering together facts about that life and the significant people in it helps them begin to accept their past and go forward into the future with this knowledge. Most children separated in this way gain a great deal from talking about their past, present and future to a sympathetic adult. Life story work provides a structure for talking to children, and for helping them to understand their present situation (e.g. adoption).

Children separated from their birth parents need to sort out why the separation occurred and why various adults have been unable to care for them. We have often failed in the past to give children for whom we have been responsible the opportunity to do this.

All children are entitled to an accurate knowledge of their past and their family. This is a right that children who are secure in their families take for granted. For those children separated from their birth families, the right to this knowledge is equally important, not only for the sake of the children themselves, but also for their future children.


3. What do Children Get from Life Story Work?

The principles are the same whether life story work is done directly with a child who is of sufficient age and understanding to be involved, or a life book is prepared for a very young child so that when they are older, their adopters can work through their story with them. Life story work gives children a structured and understandable way of talking about themselves. It can produce clarity where there are dangerous or idealised fantasies. Once complete, it provides them with a record which they and, with their agreement, the adults caring for them can refer to at any time, particularly when there is a crisis.

Life story work can increase a child’s sense of self-worth, because at the back of the minds of nearly all children separated from their families of origin is the thought that they are worthless and unlovable. They blame themselves for the actions of adults. If they have been abandoned, neglected or injured by their parents or wider family they are convinced that they brought it upon themselves.

Life story work gives you the opportunity to show them why they should be proud of themselves, and this positive attitude should be evident in any book video, or other record which results. In talking about their birth parents, for example, although you will tell them a suitably-worded version of the truth (however painful that may be) about their family and why they needed to come into care/be adopted it is important to stress the positive side. You need to talk about their birth parents in non-judgemental terms. Perhaps you might say that not everyone is good at being a parent, but that does not mean they are bad in other respects.

A healthy sense of identity is vital to everybody. A poor sense of identity can disable children and adults alike, and limit their ability to take on fresh challenges. For some children one of the major challenges of their life will be moving into a new family. At its worst a poor sense of identity can ‘freeze’ children so they have an over-investment in the past and cannot move on to think about the future. It can also cause apathy and a depressed, fatalistic outlook.

Poor life story work, (or a poor background letter - see Later Life Letter Procedure), has the potential to be harmful for the child, for example, if it is inaccurate, incomplete, poorly presented or the work is done in an insensitive or rushed way, the child may find it very hard to develop any kind of understanding of their background history and the reasons for their adoption. This in turn can lead to major problems developing for the child, for example, in areas such as identity and attachment.


4. Who Should Write the Life Story Book?

The process should be initiated, driven and coordinated by the child's social worker. It is beneficial to begin life story work by holding a planning meeting with all those who may have a contribution to make, for example, foster carers, social worker, family care worker, etc. This would allow some plans to be made about what each person was going to contribute to the life story work.


5. What Materials are Needed?

Appropriately worded letters are another important element of a comprehensive life story book, especially, when available, those written by a birth parent, grandparent, or other significant relative. CAFIS can become involved in the support of birth parents, even whilst contested care proceedings are on-going. This may mean that CAFIS might be able to assist in obtaining items like letters and photographs for the child’s life story book even when your own relationship with birth relatives may be quite difficult.

Another potentially important opportunity to gather information for life story work is when a Life Appreciation Meeting is held during the matching stage when the plan is adoption. If such a meeting is held at this point in the adoption process, it brings together the prospective adopters and as many people as possible who have had an involvement with the child at any point during their life. People are encouraged to bring brief reports and to talk about their memories of the child and their birth family. They invariably involve sharing some information that may be useful for life story work but was not noted on the file, for example, anecdotal information about family life or events.

The link adoption worker and district adoption lead will be able to offer advice.

Other useful sources of information can be official documents such as Care Plans, Permanence Reports, Assessment Records etc. Any direct work that has been completed e.g. Words and Pictures stories to help the child understand concerns, ‘3 Houses’ etc. can form an excellent foundation. The Joy Rees’ ‘My memory book’ can be downloaded and used to gather information and start off life story work when the child is in foster care.

Presentation is very important in terms of validating the importance of the life story and motivating the child to want to read it and show it to others:

  • Use a loose leaf folder while engaged in the work; but bind and laminate it once finalised by the child's social worker, to demonstrate to the child the importance of their story. Leave blank pages at the end of the laminated version so it can be added to in the future;
  • Ensure it is clear who put the book together, and give a personal message e.g. 'this book was prepared especially for you';
  • Always work on clean paper;
  • Drawings and photos should be mounted and clearly labelled;
  • Use neat headings;
  • If the child is unable/reluctant to write themselves, let them dictate what they want to say;
  • Use good quality copies/photocopies of treasured photos, documents etc. and not the original;
  • Get a balance of words and pictures;
  • A responsible adult should keep hold of the book until it is finished;
  • Keep a copy of it.


6. What Goes Into the Life Story Book?

  • Always spell check and give close attention to spelling names correctly;
  • Start with the present and set out the past clearly, in sections with labelling and page numbers, ensuring photographs fit the periods;
  • Call the child 'You' rather than repeating their first name;
  • Give a clear timeline;
  • Prioritise information - consider what is, and what will be important to the child about their background;
  • Family tree - back three generations if possible; but keep to immediate family so that t he child can understand. Include additional information about aunts, uncles, cousin etc. in a later appendix;
  • Photos of maternity hospital (and, for younger children, a clock showing the time);
  • Weight, length, head circumference at birth;
  • Avoid including a list of medical conditions and diagnosis without some scene setting;
  • Any items from the hospital (e.g. identity tag);
  • Dates of first smile, sounds, words, tooth, steps etc;
  • Photos of parents;
  • Photos as well as maps of places where the child lived;
  • Photos of relatives;
  • Photos of friends;
  • Photos of pets;
  • Photos of school;
  • Introduce and explain difficult topics e.g. drug misuse / alcohol and then go onto the facts about the parents involvement;
  • A truthful life history - including abuse, neglect etc. - that is age appropriate to the child. More detail can be added later by carers as the child needs to know;
  • Parents' stories; their likes and dislikes;
  • First names of siblings; explaining whether they are half or full siblings, who their parents are (if one differs), and about any ‘unrelated’ but important to the child connections (e.g. other fostered children, close friends at nursery etc). See note below regarding avoidance of use of surnames;
  • The child's views and memories; who they may have shared good activities with;
  • Photos of workers and their roles;
  • Story of the court process;
  • Explanation of how the child came to be adopted or on another legal order, or permanently fostered, taking time to explain each stage according to when it happened;
  • Photos of carers;
  • Story of family finding; if separated from siblings need to give basic explanation of why;
  • Details of ceremonies (e.g. baptism);
  • Anecdotes;
  • Favourite foods, likes and dislikes;
  • Do not include surnames or birth certificates, that the child might later use unsupervised on Social Media. This level of information should be provided in the later life letter (see below);
  • Don’t include irrelevant information that will not have a meaning to the child;
  • Remember to set the scene, so that as much basic information as possible is given about siblings, parents and other relatives, using factual and easy to understand language;
  • Ensure birth father information is given sufficient weight;
  • Avoid jargon, legal language, complicated detail;
  • Consider your own beliefs and values, and ensure you do not assume they are shared by the carers or the child.


7. Foster Carers / Residential Staff

Make sure that the child’s foster/residential carers are taking regular, good quality photographs of the child, and that these are printed and stored somewhere safe. It is also useful to talk to the foster/residential carer about keeping a memory box for/with the child. This can include any item that links to an event, place or person in the child’s life, and can have incredible significance when a child is placed for adoption. Remember to make a list of all the items included in such a box, with where they came from, who provided them, and any special reasons why they were thought to be significant. A copy of the list can then be enclosed in the box and another placed on the child’s file.

Foster families and residential staff should record the story of the child's stay with them as fully as possible, including:

  • Descriptions of what the child was like when they arrived, what they liked and disliked;
  • Details of development (e.g. learning to ride a bike);
  • Their own special memories of the child;
  • Positive comments about the child;
  • Birthdays, Christmases and other family celebrations/outings/holidays etc. - photos, favourite places etc;
  • Details and photos of the foster family (including extended family), home, pets etc., who they got on with and who they didn't;
  • If appropriate, times when they had arguments, sulks etc;
  • Special rituals the child liked;
  • Souvenirs of school - photos, certificates, reports, photos of and stories from teachers;
  • Contact visits;
  • Illnesses;
  • Photos of birth family with foster family;
  • Crafts/pictures completed in the foster home/school/playgroup;
  • Anecdotes.


8. Using the Life Story Book

Children need truthful and honest explanations that they can understand - that means using language they know.

It is important that:

  • Questions are answered as honestly as possible;
  • Adults admit when they don't know the answer and offer to try and find out (rather than making something up);
  • Adults build on the basic detail overtime, in an age appropriate way for the child, using the later life letter and other information they have been given;
  • Children are helped to accept that not everything can be explained or understood;
  • Information is given sensitively and honestly - protection and evasion leads to confusion and fear;
  • Adults help children to realise which feelings are healthy and acceptable by discussing their own feelings frankly. If feelings are ignored, children get the message that to express them is wrong - bottling them up can lead to negative behaviour like aggression or withdrawal;
  • Adults never pretend abusive/bad relationships didn't exist.


9. Children who are Adopted

Where there is an adoption plan for Children in Care, life story work should be part of the preparation of the child for the adoptive placement. Further details are set out in the Placement for Adoption Procedure, Section 3, Preparation of Child for Adoption. The Adoption Panel will require sight of the draft book at the matching Panel. It is a requirement that the Life Story Book is ready for the second review of the adoptive placement; this is monitored and reported on by the IRO. Later Life letters are to be given to adopters no later than 10 days after the ceremony to celebrate the making of the Adoption Order.


Further Information

Click here to view Joy Ree's Website.

See also lifestorywork.org for further ideas from an adoptive parent.

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