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Kids and Lifebooks: Tips for Social Workers
Every child adopted from foster care deserves a clear, detailed record of his or her life before adoption. While a foster child waits for a forever family, a lifebook can help him understand the past and prepare to move on.
When a child is placed in a permanent family, lifebooks are a connection to the past that can inform and enrich the future. Created with care, lifebooks are an important tool for helping children navigate difficult life transitions and enabling them to take ownership of their unique histories.
Simply put, a lifebook is a book that presents the story of a child’s life. Like other books, lifebooks can contain photos, artwork, text, and other meaningful memorabilia that provide information about a child’s personal history. What kid doesn’t love being the star of his own story for an audience of his choosing?
It’s very simple in principle…until you start factoring in abuse and neglect, multiple placements, loss and grief, complex legalities, and complications. How would you interpret abuse, drugs, and rejection in terms and images appropriate for a five-year-old child? You may have to learn new skills, but a well-constructed lifebook can contain a story of even the deepest loss and pain.
When I was a new adoption worker, the experienced writers in my office created a lifebook template / checklist of sorts. All our lifebooks include:
or information about the child’s birth
or a copy of the child’s birth certificate
or birth family information
or why the child entered foster care
or a history of different placements
or worker’s blessing page
To boost children’s self-esteem, our template includes a very happy birth page. A common line is, “When you were born, the doctors ooohed and aaah…”
While I believe all parts of the lifebook, I really don’t like this line. To me, this is simply not true. Many of our children are little babies addicted to drugs, fighting for their lives. Lifebooks are supposed to be about truth.
Book of Life Facts.
Since the books of life are historical documents, it is never good to lie. Sometimes, however, you may not know much about a particular event – say, the moment the baby is born. In such circumstances, you should say, “I bet that….”
I bet your birth mother is happy to give birth to a beautiful baby girl, but she may also be depressed and confused because of her bad drug problems.
Official documents such as birth certificates and hospital birth records are a great source of real information, and children love to see important pieces of paper that validate their lives. Foster kids sometimes need to be reminded that they, like everyone else, begin life by giving birth.
Another way to emphasize the truth of the lifebook is to involve the child. After all, this is his story. Grab some crayons and markers, and find a quiet space. Young children may enjoy dictating while you write; pretend they are guests on a talk show and interview them. Some children may want to write their own words, and have you turn them into neat, printed pages.
Some truths are difficult to explain and accept. But if an event is an important part of the child’s history, include what you can in a developmentally appropriate way. A teenager might understand “sexual abuse” and a birth parent “addicted to cocaine and alcohol,” but a younger person might better understand phrases like “no good touch” and “can’t avoid bad drugs. .”
Dismissals tell a child that things are so bad that they cannot be shared. Then the child may fill in the blanks with more frightening imaginings and a sense of guilt or shame. Truth leads to healing, and troubling past events, over time, can fade into “the way it was.”
Think about your family for a moment. Which relatives do you follow? Whose athleticism matches yours? Whose laughter echoes yours at the same jokes? Whose nose (better or worse) is stuck in your face?
Much of our identity comes from being a part of the generations that came before us. Children who live with their birth family can see the characteristics they share with relatives. They also hear and retell family stories at the dinner table, at family gatherings, and through shared memories.
Children adopted from foster care may have vivid memories of their birth family, but relatively few positive stories or happy shared moments. When the birth family is no longer in their lives, they lose important connections.
Can you imagine going through life without finding anyone like you? Imagine what it’s like to go through a major life event — having a baby or being screened for cancer — without knowing your family’s medical history?
Lifebooks can help answer the questions that keep children, teens, and adults up at night. Adoption social workers often have access to detailed social histories, old medical records, and other social workers who have previously worked with birth parents. If the birth parents’ visits are still ongoing, you have a golden opportunity to collect important facts and images.
In my view, any opportunity to obtain information or images should be considered a last chance. Additional family photos and details about the birth family will be a treasure to the child–and to the child’s parents for the rest of their lives.
And let’s not forget brothers; they have a special magic all their own. A simple page with siblings’ names, ages, photos, and locations can do wonders.
One of the hardest and most critical parts of lifebooks answers the question: Why can’t I live with my birth family?
It is not wise to tell a child that their birth parent is sick (unless it is an honest part of the story). Don’t sick people usually get better? And if Mom gets better, shouldn’t the child go home? What if Mom is not well–is she dead, or dying? Why give the child this worry?
I tell the children that their birth father, birth mother (or other caregiver) has adult problems and cannot take care of himself. In fact, the caretaker took care of himself so badly that he was unable to take care of a child – any child – at that time in his life.
By putting the responsibility right on the adult, we can help children work through the trivial thinking evidence of rhymes like: “Step into a crack and break your mother’s back.” Many children with histories of abuse believe they are bad or somehow responsible for being taken from their birth families. As social workers, we must ensure that children do not carry this burden of wrongful sin for life.
I often ask children directly, “Why do you think you don’t live with your birth family?” In 10 minutes, I got more information from this question than most therapists in 10 sessions. Depending on the circumstances, I will discuss each child’s specific situation.
Placements pages are always the most straightforward. Start here and now; create a page on the child’s current school, favorite foods, best friends, sports, and favorite activities. Take any photos you can. Do the same for previous placements in foster homes, group homes, or emergency shelters.
If the child is about to enter an adoptive placement, a favorite page can be a reminder of when the adoptive parents and child first met. Interview parents and children separately, and then share their quotes. Now you are gathering text for a lifebook.
Find school report cards, awards, and positive quotes from teachers and foster parents. Rewards and praise help children feel good about who they are—a feeling that gives them ego strength to deal with difficult changes.
The Job Blessing Page
As a social worker, you have likely worked with this child for months, if not years. Before putting the child up for adoption, take the time to write a page for the end of the lifebook. Talk about the child’s strengths and what you think is special about him. Include a funny story or thought.
It’s important to give a child permission to move on and be happy. This is a powerful message for years to come.
A team approach to lifebooks can be most rewarding. If the foster parents can capture a few moments of the child’s life–perhaps take a picture of the birth family and share the picture with the foster family as well–then the lifebook begins. Social workers and therapists can add to the record.
When the child is adopted, carefully transfer the book to the adoptive family. Instruct the adoptive parents to keep the lifebook in a special and safe place. If the child wants the book in his room, make a copy of the original for him to keep. The child can decide when the lifebook comes out and parents should never share the book without the child’s permission.
The book can be part of adoption anniversary celebrations, provide help with a family tree project at school, open the door to conversations about adoption and birth as the child grows, and help the child to -dealing with the painful loss of his birth family. Then again, it will be something that the child will only appreciate once he starts his own family. The lifebook should be available when the child is ready.
Soon after I started working on lifebooks for children, I heard back from families whose children had my first simple, typewritten efforts. To my delight, they reported that the lifebooks became more valuable over time. Lifebooks provide foster and adopted children with essential, life-affirming information: basic factual data about themselves, as well as an understanding of where they come from and why they have a new family. They are also given permission to remember and grieve their losses and better relationships with their new families. What a gift!
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