Photo: chagin / Adobe Stock
By Hannah Walker, Life Story Librarian for Sharing Stories at CCS Adoption
* names have been changed
Baby Charlie * couldn’t live with his biological family, but they were determined to let him know where he was from. Although at times painful, Charlie’s biological mother and maternal biological grandparents all spent time talking with me, sharing memories, anecdotes, and explaining what happened in their own words.
Over three sessions, Charlie’s birth mother spoke about her childhood, her likes and dislikes, as well as her hopes and dreams for Charlie. She also showed me the location of her cot (the phosphorescent stars still visible on the ceiling) and her scanned photo on the refrigerator – allowing me to take pictures that her adopters can show her when he is older.
His biological grandparents also shared numerous photos and videos, including some of Charlie’s biological mother as a child, and a video of his first steps. Charlie’s grandmother said: “It is going to be a long time before we have a chance to see him and talk to him as an adult and so much the better for him to read about us and feel safe. security about his origins and how much he was loved and cherished. “
“The memories taken care of are slippery”
For most people growing up, their stories and identity are shaped by the people around them, who carry their stories and memories. Their mother or father may remember the first thing the midwife said when they were born. Older siblings may remember their first words or the fall behind the scar still present on their upper lip.
Yet for children who do not grow up in their biological families, many of these memories and their context can be lost. Lemn Sissay wrote: “The memories supported are slippery because there is no one to remember them over the years. In a few months I would be in another house with another group of people who had no idea this moment… This is how you become invisible.
One of the ways we can try to help adopted children understand their past and where they came from is by using life story books. These books aim to help children understand their stories and how they were adopted. They are a legal obligation and must be given to children and their adopters within 10 days of their celebration hearing.
Ofsted Praise Council for Life History Work
Life history work has been highlighted as an area of ”outstanding practice” by council inspectors from Telford and Wrekin. “It’s not considered a ‘one-off’ job, but it is continually revisited throughout a child’s life and at key stages of development. “
Ofsted recognizes the importance of life history work and this is largely seen in its judgments.
However, life story books are often not completed within the statutory deadlines – they must be returned to the child and adopters no later than ten working days after the adoption ceremony – and can be of high quality. variable, sometimes even not received at all. .
In July 2019, the Adoption UK Adoption Barometer found that 27% of new adopters felt they had not received all the information they needed about their child (ren).
Almost half of first-time adopters (46%) did not receive their child’s history book (or equivalent) within the prescribed timeframe and 34% described their child’s life history material as somewhat or very insufficient. The report indicated that when preparation or information sharing had not been deepened, the impact could be devastating – even to the point of breaking the placement.
Top tips for social workers
In my role as the life story book worker for Sharing Stories at CCS Adoption, I have co-created two life story books with Charlie’s adopters for use at different ages. We co-write so that adopters have a say in the language and can feel that they are making the books their own. Charlie’s foster mother said she cried “quite a bit” while reading the books and appreciates the way they “describe hard truths in a gentle way.” Charlie’s social worker also commented that the books “show how much time and effort it takes” to work on the life story, but also “how worth these babies are.” All children deserve the best life story work we can give.
Part of the reason Sharing Stories exists is that we recognize how difficult it is for social workers to dedicate the time necessary to this task, while managing high workloads and levels of risk. However, we know that many local communities will not have access to specialized services. Below are a few suggestions that we hope can help support a good life story work.
- If a biological parent is attending the contact, have the contact supervisors take many photos and short videos of their interactions. Give contact supervisors ideas for questions to ask during the contact (see quick questions suggested by Joy Rees in her book, “Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach”) so that they can gather information this way, or encourage foster caregivers to ask a question or two in their contact book. These can be very simple, such as “What is your favorite food / color / music?” “
- Can you add some of these simple questions to the evaluation period? Cultural genograms can also be a very useful way to gather rich information about the history of life.
- Give birth parents some ideas on recording things themselves. For example, encourage birth parents to fill out a baby book for their later adopted child, with photos of themselves as children, photos of parents, and pregnancy scan images. If parents aren’t comfortable writing things down, see if they can check in on their phone, then help them send it to foster families or caregivers if they’re not. happy to send it directly to the social worker. Help them think of things to save and whether or not they have any baby items or clothes they want to share.
- Use car trips as opportunities to have conversations about the interests of biological family members.
- Even if they are not evaluated, remember the valuable information that extended family members might have. In Sharing Stories, an adult sibling shared amazing information, including a eulogy for their parents’ funeral; an ex-partner spoke about the life of a child’s parents before his mental illness became so severe; and grandparents often provided childhood photos or health information.
- Remember how important objects are (for more information, check out the ‘trove’ project or this article by Debbie Watson, Senior Lecturer in Childhood Studies at the University of Bristol at The Guardian.)
Hannah Walker is a qualified social worker with experience in child protection work in local authorities. She now works as a life story book worker.