Life Story Work
SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
Good preparation for adoption and good life story work contributes towards successful adoptive and other alternative permanent family placements. The Life Story Book provides an accessible and child-friendly explanation for the child of how they have comes to be where they are today.
This chapter explains the importance of the Life Story Book for all Children Looked After and adoptive children and provides guidance for social workers on what to include in the life story book. All children with a plan for adoption must have a Life Story Book.
This chapter was reviewed in January 2019 and updated as required.
1. Key Principles
We recognise and respect that children and young people need to be able to make sense of their history. We understand that we have a responsibility to support them to do this by capturing their unique life experiences. We do this by sensitively collecting information that is important to them about their family, friends and significant relationships. We do this from the beginning to end of our involvement in their lives.
In Calderdale, we refer to this activity as 'My Life and Me' in response to feedback from Children Looked After.
Life Story Work and preparation for adoption lie on a continuum of direct work with the child, which at its best will equip the child to make a smooth transition from their birth family, through foster care and into a new adoptive or alternative permanent family arrangement with the capacity - according to their age and development - for a sound understanding of the reasons why such a fundamental and permanent change has been necessary.
Good preparation for adoption is one of the contributing factors towards a successful adoptive placement.
In practice, it is impossible to separate good preparation for adoption from good Life Story Work, which should precede it and go with the child into the adoptive placement in the tangible form of the Life Story Book. There the book will form the basic tool for early conversations about the child's past experience, and will be the only tool designed for the child's particular use. The information contained in the Child's Permanence Report is intended for the prospective adopters at this stage of the process, and will only be shared with the child when he or she is older. The Life Story Book, however, should be the most accessible and child-friendly explanation of how the child comes to be where he or she is today. Its importance therefore cannot be over-emphasised.
3. What is Life Story Work?
All children with a plan for adoption must have a Life Story Book, and, all children who have been separated from their birth family will need help in in understanding why this has happened. Foster families and residential staff should be encouraged to record the story of the child's stay with them as fully as possible. Life Story Work 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 provides an opportunity for the child to explore and understand their early history and life before their adoption.
A Life Story Work should encompass:
- Description 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;
- Birthdays, Christmases and other family celebrations / outings / holidays etc.;
- Details and photos of the foster family (including extended family), home, pets, etc. who they get 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;
- Photos of birth family with foster family;
- Crafts / pictures completed in the foster home / school / playgroup;
- Anecdotes. Rich stories that give testimony to qualitative relationships and not just problem saturated chronologies.
Where appropriate, this information together with memorabilia should be stored safely in a suitable box – a "memory box".
4. Children with a Plan for Adoption
Where there is an adoption plan for a Child Looked After, life story work should be part of the preparation of the child for the adoptive placement.
The life story book and "memory box" should be co-ordinated by one person, preferably the child's social worker, and given to the child and prospective adopter in stages. The first stage is at the second statutory review of the child's placement with the prospective adopter.
Additional statutory requirements:
- Keep as full a chronological record as possible of a child's life that reflects strengths and vulnerabilities within the family;
- 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 they need 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;
- The completed Life Story Work should be handed to the adoptive parents, together with Later Life Letters, within 10 working days of the adoption ceremony, i.e. the ceremony to celebrate the making of the adoption order.
5. Who Should be Involved in Life Story Work?
The Life Story process should be systemic and involve significant people in the child's life present and past. A plan and process should be initiated, driven and coordinated by the child's social worker in consultation with the child, the carer(s), parents, relatives, friends etc.
Time and care should be given to:
- Planning carefully how to undertake the work;
- Reading the information about the child carefully and thoroughly;
- Collating the information in chronological order. However it is important that information references hopes for the future as well as the past and the present;
- Noting reasons for decisions;
- Noting gaps in the records and attempting to fill them;
- Counselling children, parents, friends, relatives and carers etc. as necessary;
The process should be reviewed at regular intervals and form part of their care planning process e.g. Child Looked After Reviews.
6. What Methods should be used?
The methods used can be varied but should reflect the child's creativity, ideas and involvement. The information should be presented in a usable way appropriate to the child's age, and cognitive understanding. (It is not advisable to cut and paste information from agency reports).
- It is important children feel emotionally supported and safe when undertaking life story work. A significant adult should be identified to whom the child can signal their distress and worries;
- Use a loose leaf folder, information can be inserted and removed as necessary;
- Use headings to structure information to make it accessible;
- 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 and use language which is age appropriate and child centred: Avoid use of professional jargon;
- A responsible adult should keep hold of the information until it is finished;
- Keep a copy or photographs of the completed work;
- Consider non-traditional methods of Life Story Work, i.e. digital technology, child friendly genograms, life maps and site visits with the child (if appropriate), testimony letters from significant other the child has been involved with. Provide disposable cameras for them to take their own photos.
7. What Information is needed for Life Story Work?
- Strengths should be identified as part of a child's life story. Information from the present past and future should ensure that stories are not problem saturated;
- Family tree - back three generations if possible;
- Photos of maternity hospital (and, for younger children, a clock showing the time);
- Weight, length, head circumference at birth;
- Birth certificate, if possible;
- Any items from the hospital (e.g. identity tag);
- Dates of first smile, sounds, words, tooth, steps etc;
- Photos of parents;
- Photos and maps of places where the child lived;
- Photos of relatives;
- Photos of friends;
- A truthful life history which is age appropriate. More detailed and potentially distressing information about the reasons why a child was adopted should be included in the Later Life Letter which is given to them when they are older and better able to cope and understand such information;
- Parents' stories;
- Details of siblings;
- The child's views and memories;
- Photos of workers and their roles;
- Story of the court process;
- Photos and information relating to carers past and present;
- Story of family finding;
- Details of ceremonies (e.g. baptism);
- Favourite foods, likes and dislikes;
- Child's future hopes and wishes;
- Where appropriate birth families hopes and wishes;
- Consideration should be given to creating two books for a child taking into account the cognitive ability, and chronological age. A primary book i.e. Nine years and under, then a secondary book appropriate for a child of high school age.
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);
- 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.