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Kids and Lifebooks: Tips for Social Workers
Every child adopted from foster care deserves an accurate, detailed record of their life before adoption. As an adopted child waits to find their forever family, a life book can help them make sense of the past and prepare to move forward.
When a child is in a permanent home, life books are a link to the past that can inform and improve the future. Carefully crafted life books are an invaluable tool for helping children through difficult life transitions and empowering them to take ownership of their unique story.
Simply put, a Lifebook is a book that presents a child’s life story. Like other books, a lifebook can contain pictures, illustrations, text, and other meaningful memorabilia that convey information about a child’s personal history. What kid doesn’t enjoy being the star of their own story for an audience of choice?
Basically, it’s very simple… until you start factoring in abuse and neglect, multiple placements, loss and grief, complicated laws and breakdowns. How can you put abuse, drugs, and rejection into terms and images suitable for a five-year-old? You may have to learn some new skills, but a well-written book of life can contain a story of even the deepest loss and pain.
When I was a new adoption officer, the seasoned writers in my office created a Lifebook template/checklist of sorts. All of our life books included:
o information about the birth of a child
o a copy of the child’s birth certificate
o information about the birth of the family
o why the child ended up in foster care
o history of different locations
o page of the blessing of the worker
To boost children’s self-esteem, our template included a very upbeat birthday page. One common phrase was, “When you were born, the doctors ah ah ah ah . . .”
Although I believed in all of Lifebook’s components, I never really liked the line. It just didn’t ring true to me. So many of our children were little addicts fighting for their lives. Lifebooks are supposed to tell the truth.
Since life books are historical documents, you can never lie. Sometimes, however, you may know little about a particular event – say, the moment a child is born. In such circumstances, you may need to say, “I bet that…”.
I bet your birth mother was happy to give birth to such a beautiful baby girl, but maybe she also felt sad and confused because of her drug problems.
Official documents such as birth certificates and hospital birth records are a great source of factual information, and children love to see important pieces of paper that prove their very existence. Foster children sometimes need to be reminded that they, like everyone else, started life at birth.
Another way to promote Lifebook truth is to involve a child. At the end of the day, it’s his or her story. Grab your pencils and markers and find a quiet place. Younger children may enjoy dictating while you write; pretend to be talk show guests and interview them. Other children may want to write down their own words and you can turn them into neat printable pages.
Some truths are hard to explain and accept. But if the event is an important part of the child’s story, include what you can for developmental purposes. A teenager may be able to understand “sexual abuse” and parents who were “addicted to cocaine and alcohol,” but a younger child may better understand phrases like “bad touch” and “couldn’t stay away from harmful drugs.”
Neglects tell a child that things are so bad that they cannot be shared. The child may then fill in the gaps with much more frightening imaginings and feelings of guilt or shame. The truth leads to healing, and troubling past events can become “what is” over time.
Think about your family for a moment. What kind of relatives do you follow? Whose athleticism matches yours? Whose laugh resonates with yours at the same jokes? Whose nose (for better or worse) is stuck in your face?
Much of our identity comes from belonging to the generations that came before us. Children who live in the birth family see common features with relatives. They also hear and experience family stories around the dinner table, at family gatherings, and through shared memories.
Children adopted from foster families may have vivid memories of their birth family, but relatively few positive stories or happy moments together. As soon as the family of origin leaves their lives, they lose basic connections.
Can you imagine life without meeting anyone who looks like you? Imagine going through a major life event – the birth of a baby or a cancer screening – without knowing your family 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 once worked with birth parents. If the parent visits are still ongoing, you have a great opportunity to gather important facts and images.
In my opinion, any chance to get information or photos should be considered as the last chance. Additional family photos and details about the birth family will be a treasure for the child – and for those who raise the child for the rest of their lives.
And let’s not forget the brothers and sisters; they have a special magic. A simple page with siblings’ names, ages, photos and locations can do wonders.
One of the most difficult and critical parts of life books is answering the question: Why don’t I live with my birth family?
It is not wise to tell a child that his own father was ill (unless it is an honest part of the story). Don’t sick people usually get better? And when the mother gets better, shouldn’t the child be returned home? What if mom doesn’t get better – is she dead or dying? Why give the child this trouble?
I tell children that their birth father, birth mother (or other caregiver) had problems growing up and couldn’t take care of themselves. In fact, the caretaker took such poor care of himself that he/she couldn’t care for a child – any child – at that time in his/her life.
By placing the responsibility squarely on the adult, we can help children deal with the senseless thoughts that manifest in rhymes like “Step on the crack and break your mother’s back.” Many children with a history of abuse believe that they were bad or somehow to blame for being taken from the family they belonged to. As social workers, we must ensure that children do not carry this burden of false guilt throughout their lives.
I often ask children directly, “Why do you think you don’t live with your family?” I get more information out of this question in 10 minutes than most therapists do in 10 sessions. Depending on the circumstances, I will discuss each child’s specific situation.
Placement pages are often the simplest. Start here and now; make a page about your child’s school, favorite foods, good friends, sports, and favorite activities. Get any photos you can. Do the same for past placements in foster homes, group homes, or emergency shelters.
If a child is just about to be adopted, a favorite page might be a page commemorating the first meeting between the adoptive parents and the child. Interview the parent and child separately and then share their quotes. Now you are accumulating text for Lifebook.
Look for school reports, awards and testimonials from teachers and foster parents. Rewards and praise can help children feel good about who they are – a feeling that can give them ego strength to cope with difficult transitions.
Page of the Blessing of the Worker
As a social worker, you must have worked with this child for months, if not years. Right before a child is placed for adoption, take the time to write one page at the end of the book of life. Talk about your child’s strengths and what you think is special about him. Include a funny story or thought.
It is important to give your child permission to move on and be happy. This is a powerful message for years to come.
How to do it
A team approach to Lifebooks can be most helpful. If the adoptive parents can capture a few moments of the child’s life – perhaps take a photo of the birth family and share a photo of the adoptive family as well – then the book of life begins. Social workers and therapists can supplement the record.
If the child is adopted, carefully hand the book to the adoptive family. Teach foster parents to keep the book of life in a special and safe place. If the child wants the book in her room, make a copy of the original for her to keep. The child can decide when the Lifebook is released, and parents should never share the book without the child’s permission.
Perhaps the book will be part of an adoption anniversary celebration, help build a school family tree, open the door to conversations about adoption and identity as a child grows, and help a child cope with the painful loss of their birth family. In addition, it may be something that the child will be able to appreciate only after creating a family of his own. The Lifebook should be available whenever the child is ready.
Soon after I started working on children’s books, I heard from families whose children had my first simple, typewritten attempts. To my delight, they reported that life books became more valuable over time. Books of Life provide foster and adoptive children with important, life-affirming information: basic facts about themselves, as well as understanding where they come from and why they have a new family. It also allowed them to remember and grieve their losses and build relationships with their new families. What a gift!
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