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Kids and Lifebooks: Tips for Social Workers
Every child who is adopted from foster care deserves a clear and detailed record of their life before adoption. While a foster child waits for a forever family, a life book can help them understand the past and prepare for the path forward.
Once a child is placed in a permanent family, life books are a connection to the past that can inform and enhance the future. Done with care, rescue books are an invaluable tool to help children navigate difficult life transitions and allow them to take ownership of their unique history.
Simply put, a lifebook is a book that presents a child’s life story. Like other books, life books can contain pictures, artwork, text, and other meaningful memorabilia that convey information about a child’s personal history. What child wouldn’t love to be the star of their own story for an audience of their choosing?
It’s very simple in principle…until you start factoring in abuse and neglect, multiple placements, loss and grief, complicated legalities and disruption. How can you translate 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-crafted life book can contain the story of even the deepest loss and pain.
When I was a new adoption worker, the experienced writers in my office created a life book template/checklist. All our life books contained:
for information about the birth of a child
about a copy of the child’s birth certificate
o birth family information
o why the child entered foster care
about the history of different locations
o page blessing workers
To boost children’s confidence, our template included a very optimistic birth page. One common line was, “When you were born, doctors oooh and aaah…”
Even though I believed in all the components of the rescue book, I never liked this series. It just wasn’t true for me. So many of our children were little drug addicts fighting for their lives. Life books are supposed to be about the truth.
Life book of truth.
Because rescue books are historical documents, it is never okay to lie. Sometimes, however, you may not know much about a particular event—say, the moment a child is born. In such circumstances, you may have to say, “I bet…”
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 problems with bad drugs.
Official documents such as birth certificates and hospital birth records are great sources of factual information, and children love to see important pieces of paper that confirm their very existence. Children in foster care sometimes need to be reminded that, like everyone else, they began life at birth.
Another way to promote the truth about the book of life is to involve a child. After all, this is his or her story. Grab your crayons and markers and find a quiet spot. Younger children may enjoy dictation while writing; pretend to be guests on a talk show and interview them. Other children may want to write down their own words and have them turned into neat, printed pages.
Some truths are hard to explain and accept. However, if an event is an important part of the child’s history, include what you can in a developmentally appropriate way. A teenager may be able to understand “sexual abuse” and a parent who was “addicted to cocaine and alcohol,” but a younger child may better understand phrases like “bad touching” and “couldn’t stay away from bad drugs.” .”
Omissions tell a child that things are too bad to share. Then the child may fill in the blanks with much scarier images and feelings of guilt or shame. The truth leads to healing, and troubling past events can fade away into “the way things are” over time.
Think about your family for a moment. Which relatives do you follow? Whose athleticism matches yours? Whose laugh echoes yours at the same jokes? Whose nose is (for better or for worse) glued to your face?
Much of our identity comes from being part of the generations that came before us. Children who live with their birth family may see traits they share with relatives. They also hear and relive family stories around the dinner table, at family gatherings and through shared memories.
Children who are adopted from foster care may have vivid memories of their birth family, but relatively few positive stories or happy times together. Once the birth family disappears from their lives, they lose a major connection.
Can you imagine going through life without meeting someone who looks like you? Imagine what it’s like to go through a major life event—having a baby or being diagnosed with cancer—without knowing your family history?
Rescue books can help you answer the questions that keep kids, teens, and adults thinking at night. Adoption social workers often have access to detailed social histories, old medical records, and other social workers who once worked with the birth parents. If visits with parents are still ongoing, you have a unique opportunity to gather important facts and pictures.
In my opinion, any chance to get information or pictures should be considered the last chance. Additional family photos and birth family details will be a treasure for the child – and for those raising the child for the rest of their lives.
And let’s not forget siblings; they have their own special charm. A simple page with sibling names, ages, pictures and locations can do wonders.
One of the most difficult and critical parts of life books answers the question: Why don’t I live with my birth family?
It is not wise to tell a child that their parent was ill (unless it is an honest part of the story). Aren’t sick people usually treated? And if mom gets better, shouldn’t the baby come home? What if mom doesn’t get better – is she dead or dying? Why give a child such worries?
I tell the children that their father, mother (or other caregiver) had problems growing up and was unable to take care of themselves. In fact, the caregiver took such poor care of himself that he could not have cared for any child at that time in his life – any child.
By putting responsibility squarely on the adult, we can help children work through the nonsensical thinking exemplified in rhymes like, “Step on the crack and break your mother’s back.” Many children with a history of abuse believe they were wrong or somehow responsible for being taken from their birth family. As social workers, we must ensure that children do not carry this burden of false guilt with them through life.
I often ask children directly, “Why do you think you don’t live with your birth family?” I get more information from this question in 10 minutes than most therapists do in 10 sessions. Depending on the circumstances, I will then discuss the specific situation of each child.
Placement sites are often the most direct. Start here and now; make a page about the child’s current school, favorite foods, good friends, sports and favorite activities. Get any photos you can. Do the same for past placements in orphanages, group homes or emergency shelters.
If a child is about to enter an adoptive placement, a page commemorating when the adoptive parents and the child first met may be a favorite page. Talk to the parents and the child separately and then share their quotes. You are now collecting the text for the rescue book.
Find school report cards, awards and positive quotes from teachers and foster parents. Appreciation and praise can help children feel good about who they are—a feeling that can give them the ego strength to deal with difficult transitions.
The Worker’s Blessing Page
As a social worker, you have probably worked with this child for months, if not years. Just before the child is placed for adoption, take the time to write one page at the end of the life book. Talk about the child’s strengths and what you think is special about him. Add a funny story or thought.
It is important to give the 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 rescue books can be most rewarding. If foster parents can capture a few moments in a child’s life—like taking a photo of the birth family and sharing a picture of the foster family—then the book of life has begun. Social workers and therapists can supplement the record.
When a child is adopted, carefully transfer the book to the adoptive family. Train the adoptive parents to keep the book of life in a special and safe place. If the child wants to keep the book in their room, make a copy of the original for them to keep. The child can decide when the rescue book comes out, and parents should never share it without the child’s permission.
It can become part of an adoption anniversary celebration, help with a school family tree entry, open the door to conversations about adoption and identity as the child gets older, and help a child cope with the painful loss of their birth family. Then it can also be something that the child can only appreciate when they start their own family. The rescue book should be available whenever the child is ready.
Soon after I started working on children’s life books, I heard from families whose children had their first attempts at typewriting. To my delight, they reported that the salvage books became more valuable over time. Life books 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. It also gave them permission to remember and grieve their losses and bond better with their new families. What present!
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