The success of the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, where celebrities trace their family history, goes to show just how obsessed we are with knowing where we come from. Everyone has their own discoveries to make and, although the journey can spring many shocks and surprises, it is always rewarding.
This ability to find out about their past is something most people can do relatively easily. But for many looked-after and adopted children, it is often impossible. Not having even the most basic information about their birth parents can hinder their development of a sense of self, which in turn can lead to major psychological problems. As Tony Ryan and Rodger Walker wrote in a British Association for Adoption and Fostering guide: “At the back of the minds of nearly all children separated from their families of origin is the thought that they are worthless and unlovable.”
Which is why life story work is so important. The Adoption and Children Act 2002 states that a child must be given comprehensive information about themselves on placement with adoptive parents and that some form of life story work should be carried out prior to adoption. But does this go far enough?
Foster parents Trudy and Keith Pye think not, so have made it their business to go above and beyond current requirements. This has resulted in the quality of the life story work they produce being highly commended by their local authority.
The couple have been developing and extending the very notion of life story work, using their 25 years’ experience as foster carers. Recently, for a baby who was with them for 15 months before being placed with adoptive parents, they collected together not just written documents and photos, but physical evidence of the baby’s time with them. This included “memory packages”, boxes of things such as shells and sandcastle flags from a trip to the seaside, along with a handwritten note of what happened that day.
Trudy believes that giving a child’s history back to them in this way should be the norm. “You do it for your own children without even thinking,” she says. “Usually they’re with us for about a year if they go up for adoption, so that’s a big chunk of their life without any information. If they’re going to a family that’s got other children, this means they can ask their adoptive parents ‘what was I like as a baby?’, ‘what did I do as a baby?’, and they can answer.”
It was the growing emphasis on life story work by Enfield social services that first prompted Trudy to gather new ideas. “It’s only in the past six years that it’s got more involved,” she explains. “The training’s got better. It makes you think more about how important it is. It made you think about more than just photos.”
While there is guidance on providing life story work for older children, Trudy says there wasn’t enough to help with babies, so she created her own books. “There’s a shortage out there. You get all these lovely record books for babies when they’re born, but for a looked-after child they’re not appropriate.”
The care with which couple approach life story work so impressed Judy Castell, supervising social worker for Enfield’s kinship and permanence team, that she has now enlisted Trudy to provide training for other foster carers.
“I could go on for ever about the beautiful boxes that Trudy and Keith prepared,” she says. “She [the child] will have the detail about life events – such as her first tooth, her first word – that so many looked-after children don’t have but which go towards helping children understand who they are.”
Foster carers in Enfield will now be able to learn from Trudy and Keith’s innovations. “If you’ve not done it before it can be quite difficult,” says Trudy. “It doesn’t take a lot. By putting that little extra in, that child thinks it was special even if it wasn’t with its parents.”
LIFE STORY WORK
Things to include in a life story work
● A “communication book”, if appropriate, set up between the foster carers and the birth parents.
THE THINGS THEY ASK
Key things adopted children want to know about their past
● Why they couldn’t stay with their birth family
Taken from a survey conducted by the Commission for Social Care Inspection, 2006
This article appeared in the 4 October issue under the headline “Thanks for the memories”