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Kids and Lifebooks: Tips for Social Workers
Every child who is adopted from foster care deserves a clear, detailed record of his or her life before adoption. As a foster child waits for a forever family, a book of life can help her make sense of the past and prepare to move forward.
Once a child is placed in a permanent family, life books are a link to the past that can inform and enhance the future. Carefully crafted life books are an invaluable tool to help children navigate difficult life transitions and empower them to embrace their unique history.
Simply put, a life book is a book that tells the story of a child’s life. Like other books, life books can contain pictures, artwork, text, and other meaningful mementos that provide information about a child’s personal history. What kid doesn’t love being the star of their own story to an audience of their own choosing?
It’s very simple in principle… until you start factoring in abuse and neglect, multiple placements, loss and grief, complex legalities and disruptions. How can you translate violence, 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 tell 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 the books in our lives included:
o information about the birth of a child
o a copy of the child’s birth certificate
o birth family information
o why the child ended up in foster care
o history of different placements
o worker’s blessing page
To boost children’s self-esteem, our template included a very optimistic birth page. One common line was, “When you were born, the doctors whooped and aaah…”
Even though I believed in all the components of the book of life, I never liked that line. It just didn’t ring true to me. So many of our children were little, drug-addicted babies fighting for their lives. Life books should be about truth.
Since the books of life are historical documents, it is never okay to lie. However, sometimes you may not know much about a particular event, such as when a child is born. In these circumstances, you may have to say, “I bet that . . .”
I bet your mother was happy to give birth to such a beautiful baby girl, but she probably also felt sad and confused because of the problems with the bad medicine.
Official documents such as birth certificates and hospital birth records are a great source of factual information, and children love seeing the important pieces of paper that prove their existence. Foster children sometimes need to be reminded that they, like everyone else, began life at birth.
Another way to promote the truth of the book of life is to involve a child. After all, this is his or her story. Grab some crayons and markers and find a quiet place. Younger children may enjoy dictating while you write; pretend they are a guest on a talk show and interview them. Other children may want to write down their 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 your child’s history, include what you can in a developmentally appropriate way. A teenager may 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 bad drugs.” “.
The omissions tell the child that things are so bad that they cannot be shared. Then the child can fill in the blanks with much scarier imaginings and feelings of guilt or shame. The truth leads to healing, and troubling past events can become “what they are” over time.
Think about your family for a minute. Which relatives do you pick up? Whose athleticism matches yours? Whose laughter echoes in them at the same jokes? Whose nose (for 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 traits they share with their relatives. They also hear and experience family stories around the dinner table, family gatherings and shared memories.
Children who are adopted from foster care may have vivid memories of their birth family, but relatively few positive stories or happy moments together. When the birth family ends, they lose their primary connections.
Can you imagine life without meeting anyone who looks like you? Imagine what it’s like to experience a major life event—having a baby or being diagnosed with cancer—without knowing your family medical history?
Lifebooks can help answer the questions that keep kids, 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 the birth parents. If visits with the birth parents are still ongoing, you have a great opportunity to gather important facts and pictures.
In my opinion, any opportunity to obtain information or images should be considered as a last resort. Additional family photos and birth family information will be treasured by the child and those who are the child’s parents for the rest of their lives.
And let’s not forget the brothers and sisters; they have a special magic. 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’s not wise to tell a child that their birth parent is sick (unless it’s part of the real story). Don’t sick people usually get better? And if mom gets better, shouldn’t the baby come home? What if mom doesn’t get better – is she dead or dying? Why should a child worry?
I tell children that their birth father, mother (or other caregiver) had problems growing up and couldn’t take care of themselves. In fact, the caregiver took such poor care of herself that she couldn’t care for a child – no child – at that time in her life.
By placing responsibility solely on the adult, we can help children work through the useless thinking that manifests itself in rhymes like, “Step on the crack and break mom’s back.” Many children with a history of abuse believe that they were bad or somehow responsible for being taken from their birth families. As social workers, we need to make sure that children do not carry this false burden of guilt throughout their lives.
I often ask children directly, “Why do you think you don’t live with your birth 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 then discuss each child’s specific situation.
Page layouts are often the simplest. Start with the here and now; create a page about your child’s current school, favorite foods, good friends, sports, and favorite activities. Get all the photos you can. Do the same for previous placements in foster care, group homes, or emergency shelters.
If the child is just about to be placed with an adoptive parent, the favorite page may be the page that commemorates the first meeting between the adoptive parents and the child. Interview the parent and the child separately and then share their quotes. Now you are accumulating text for the book of life.
Look for school report cards, awards and positive quotes 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 deal with difficult transitions.
Workmen’s Blessing Page
As a social worker, you may have worked with this child for months, if not years. Just before you place your child for adoption, take the time to write a 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 the coming years.
A team approach to life books can be the most beneficial. If the foster parents can capture a few moments of the child’s life—perhaps grab a picture of the birth family and share a picture of the foster family as well—then the book of life has begun. Social workers and therapists can supplement the record.
Once the child is adopted, carefully hand the book over to the adoptive family. Teach adoptive parents to keep the Book of Life somewhere special and safe. If the child wants a book in her room, make a copy of the original for her to keep. It’s up to the child to decide when the book of life comes out, and parents should never share a book without the child’s permission.
The book may become part of an adoption anniversary celebration, help with a school family tree assignment, open the door to conversations about adoption and identity as the child gets older, and help the child cope with the painful loss of family. his birth family. Even then, it can be something that a child can only appreciate once they have their own family. The book of life should be available whenever the child is ready.
Soon after I started working on children’s life books, I heard feedback from families whose children had my first simple, typed work. To my delight, they reported that the books of life became more valuable over time. Lifebooks provide foster and adopted children with essential, life-affirming information: basic facts about themselves, as well as an understanding of where they came from and why they have a new family. It also gave them permission to remember and grieve their losses and better bond with their new families. What a gift!
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