Filling gaps

Life-story work with children should be seen
as a necessary part of helping fostering and adoption placements,
writes Helen Kahn.

The publication of the National Adoption
Standards and the accompanying draft practice guidance is a
reminder of the importance of life-story work with children who are
moving onto their “forever families”. It seems that life-story work
and direct preparatory work with children is often seen as an
afterthought or something to be undertaken only if there is time.
Yet all child care case reviews for looked-after children should
always ask: “Has life-story work been undertaken?”

The adoption standards1 state that the needs
and wishes of the looked-after child are at the centre of the
adoption process, and that every child will have his or her wishes
and feelings listened to and recorded. Children should also be well
prepared before joining their new families.

The guidance2 specifies that in preparing a
child for adoption, his or her social worker should be gathering
the child’s views “in relation to their life and experiences to
date including constructing a life-story book”.

Life-story work has been around in some form
since the 1950s but it is still a hit-and-miss affair. The Form F
and Form E – the tools of the trade in which to give detailed
information on adopters and children respectively – perhaps need to
have the addition of a Form L, “life-story work”, which would need
to be completed within an agreed timescale.

Assessments of children placed for adoption
that were written before the 1970s were usually very scanty, and
held no photographs or information about where the child lived
prior to coming to their adoptive families. These gaps create a lot
of trauma for adults and children, as it is very difficult to fill
in these gaps retrospectively.

Life-story work covers a wide area: there is a
lot of information gathering needed from previous carers in the
child’s life and the everyday details that are so important to the
child. For example, information about who else lived in a previous
fostering house-hold, what presents the child received, birthday
cards and the little stories from each placement that parents
usually hold together for their children. It’s also important to
try to keep tabs of little mementoes – paintings and creative work
form a nursery or school – and some record about the child’s
special likes and dislikes, and holidays taken together.

Contact with birth families can be an
important part of a life-story record. Foster carers need training
in how to record life-story work, and might be expected by their
social services department to make sure they always have a camera
and film with them. This is the area of work that needs to be done
on a child’s behalf, but in which they can have some involvement –
going back to visit previous carers, schools, the hospital where
they were born and other people previously significant in their

Sessions undertaken with the child also need
to be part of the package, using a variety of materials and toys.
They might include finger puppets, telephones, doll and animal
families to represent the foster carer and “forever family”, paint,
collages and sand.

The actual life-story book might contain a
variety of things, including birth-certificates, certificates from
school or for dance or gymnastic achievements, court orders,
letters from previous carers, teachers, social workers, photographs
from all previous placements and the birth family, a later life
letter written by the child’s social worker, new-born-baby
identification tags, poems, paintings, wishes, hopes and

The amount of time and commitment needed to do
this work is clearly substantial and local authorities should
consider using Quality Protects money imaginatively to employ
workers specifically for the job. The government has now indicated
that this work is essential to children’s future well-being, so it
is no longer an option to treat it as a dispensable luxury.

Helen M Kahn is an adoption social
worker in a London borough.

Background reading

1 C Thomas and V Beckford with N Lowe
and M Murch, Adopted Children Speaking, BAAF,

2 T Ryan and R Walker, Life-Story
, BAAF, 1999


1 National Adoption Standards for
England, Department of Health, 2001 –

2 Draft Practice Guidance to Support
the National Adoption Standards, Department of Health, 2001

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