Sally (not her real name) is now 33. Her story may seem familiar
to professionals who work in the care system. She was two months
old when she was first taken into care. She spent the next 18
months between the care of her birth mother and a number of
different foster carers. At the age of two years she was made
subject of a care order. For the next seven and a half years she
remained in the care system moving from placement to placement. She
spent some time in a mother and baby unit and eventually ended up
in a social services children’s home where she lived for almost a
year before prospective adopters were identified.
She went to live with her new mother and father when she was nine
and a half years old and was adopted the following year. Her
adopters were given copies of the relevant court reports for the
adoption application, which gave some details about Sally’s past
and her birth mother and a lot of information about themselves.
They were also given a hand-written postcard, which listed her
The earliest photograph Sally has of herself is a school photo
taken when she was five years old. It is not even an individual
photo but one taken with her class. Sally has no knowledge of her
birth family. All she knows is her birth mother’s name and date of
birth. She doesn’t know what her birth mother looks like. Sally
doesn’t know her birth grandparents’ names or who else is part of
her birth family. All she knows about her birth father is his name
and ethnicity. She doesn’t know her birth weight, whether her birth
was caesarian or normal delivery or what time of day she was born.
She has no knowledge of any genetic or hereditary disorders or
Sally’s story might seem hard to believe but it is true, and an
uncomfortable reminder of past practice. It was probably stories
such as Sally’s that prompted the growth of the life story model,
and thankfully so, as it did fill a gaping hole in social work
practice. However, the model, while its growth has been phenomenal,
has not evolved to meet the changing needs in practice, legislation
and of looked-after children. The life story model is frail, and
fails for the reasons given in the panel The model has served us
well. But it is time to develop a new model for practice.
The new life work model is a three dimensional process, which is an
integral part of care planning. It does not depend on a child’s
participation and is something that is done “for” the child, as
opposed to “with” the child. It extends its aim to all looked-after
children no matter what their status or care plan.
The new life work model’s three dimensions are:
– The preservation of children’s memories by using memory boxes
and age-appropriate memory books, which should lay out questions
that can be answered by the child’s carer, key worker, the child
themselves, birth family and any other appropriate person.
These should ensure that as much anecdotal and factual information
is recorded as possible. The memory books should also assist the
child in their understanding of the reasons why they are looked
after, have space for photographs and sections on special
occasions, events and contact with birth family. The child should
have a new memory book for each new temporary placement.
When the decision for permanency is that a child returns to their
birth family, they take their memory books home with them. “A child
cannot transfer attachments and therefore move on to permanency
unless issues of identity then loss and separation are
– Preparing the child to move on to permanency by clarifying the
need for direct or therapeutic work and assisting the child in his
or her understanding by using age appropriate workbooks for the
child’s carer, key worker, or any other appropriate person to do
with the child.
This part of the process also assists the child’s temporary carer
to come to terms with the loss of the child and play a significant
role in the planning process. The model identifies the need for
referral to specialist agencies, for example, play therapy, child
mental health services and so on.
This is the part of the process that should give the child the
opportunity of explanation and to grieve. It is also an ideal
opportunity to record the child’s wishes and feelings for reference
in later life. “When a person is unable to complete a mourning task
in childhood he either has to surrender his emotions in order that
they do not suddenly overwhelm him or else he may be haunted
constantly throughout his life with sadness for which he can never
find an appropriate explanation.”2
– Promoting identity by providing a comprehensive family history
book that gives as much information as possible about the child’s
birth family – from the fact that their birth grandmother was
left-handed, to tales of great uncle Fred serving in the second
It should detail cultural and ethnic issues relating to birth
family. This part of the process allows birth family to
participate, and their views, wishes and feelings can be included
in the book. The book should contain photographs of as many birth
family members as possible, including those relations who may have
died before the child’s birth. “It is difficult to grow up as a
psychologically healthy adult if denied access to one’s own
The new life work model has a clear structure with a defined
starting and finishing point, and it depends on a corporate team
approach with shared responsibility and, therefore, is more likely
to provide a quality service to the looked-after child.
Why life story is failing
- It confuses the need for information with the need for direct
or therapeutic work.
- It has no structural framework, no direction as to when to
start, when to do what and when to end.
- It has the potential to deny the promotion of a child’s
identity by focusing on his or her experience as a looked-after
- It relies heavily on a task-centred approach when this
important aspect of meeting the looked-after child’s needs should
be a process.
- It can fail to preserve the minutiae and anecdotal aspect of a
child’s memories by dealing in the factual.
- It relies on the participation of the child to the exclusion of
the unwilling and unable.
- It relies on the willing sole worker (and perhaps the one with
the most time available), whether or not this person has the
knowledge, ills and experience for this work.
- lt focuses on the child who is moving on to a permanent
situation so does not meet the needs of all looked-after
- It can oversimplify the process of life work by making the life
story book the central point of reference, the term “story”
devalues this important work.
- It does not encourage the participation of birth families.
Edith A Nicholls is an adoption social
worker for Knowsley Adoption and Fostering Service. Contact her
1 V Fahlberg, A
Child’s Journey Through Placement, Baaf Adoption and
2 Schoenberg et al, Loss
and Grief, Columbia University Press, 1970
3 As per reference
1 J Bowlby, A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of
Attachment Theory, Routledge, 1988
2 DoH, Quality Protects Circular: Transforming
Children’s Services, 1998
3 Exchanging Visions, Papers on Best Practice in
Europe for Children Separated from their Birth Families, Baaf
Adoption and Fostering, 1998
4 V Fahlberg, Helping Children When They Must
Move, Baaf Adoption and Fostering, 1987
5 Social Work Decisions in Child Care, Recent
Research Findings & Their Implications, HMSO,
6 Looking After Children, Assessing Outcomes in
Child Care, HMSO, 1991
7 T Ryan, R Walker, Life Story Work, Baaf
Adoption and Fostering, 1985 (1993, revised edition)
8 Thoburn et al, Permanence in Child Care, Baaf
Adoption and Fostering, 1986
9 C Winnicot (ed Daphne Batty), Face to Face with
Children, Working with Children, Baaf Adoption and