By Rebecca Bellew, researcher officer, and Jeff Mesie, senior research officer, of Coram
All adopted children need to be supported to gain an understanding of their past. Of the 4,790 children who were subject to a final adoption order in 2013/14, 3,140 were over two years old, meaning many will have memories of their birth family that are important to integrate.
Life story work is now a routine part of preparing children and families for adoption. Developing a sense of self and feeling able to move forward in life is complicated when you have lived with different carers and varying levels of care.
Adopted children’s understanding of their origins can become confused and this can harm their sense of who they are and their developing relationship with their new adoptive parents.
As a 275-year-old children’s charity, Coram has learned from the adults we supported as children that a key to identity formation is acquiring a working sense of one’s personal persistence in time – an understanding that despite all life has in store, one can claim confident ownership of one’s past and feel commitment to the future.
Our study, carried out with Bristol University’s Hadley Centre, shows that while a third of adopters rated their children’s life story books as ‘terrible’, around 40% said they were ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.
Delivering sound life story work can be a challenging task. Getting hold of the detailed history in the first place can be a problem. Then, the story has to be put together in a way that is balanced, age-appropriate, of high-quality and child-centred.
Often life stories have to address uncomfortable issues accurately but also with some sensitivity. Our study, which was funded by the Department for Education, has helped to shed light on the key ingredients for doing life story work well:
1. Life story books are a powerful resource when done well but useless and potentially damage when not
When life story books were of good quality, adoptive parents found them invaluable in any discussions with their children about their birth and care histories. They also felt the story books facilitated a valued connection to the child’s birth family.
Adopters thought the life story “builds a bridge back to that huge part of [the child] that we didn’t see and it is her main link to her past” and “opens the door for the children to ask questions and talk”.
So a poor life story book is at best a missed opportunity and at worst a source of frustration or harm. In some cases the life story book was unusable and believed by adopters to be too damaging and unhelpful to be given to the children concerned.
2. Story books are tools that children return to in the present and in the future
Adopters and children reported that when children wanted to reconnect and make sense of their life they would draw on the life story book. This was particularly true when children approached adolescence and questions of identity become even more salient.
A lack of information may prevent children from addressing unresolved feelings. Gaps in the narrative were frustrating and for some children a source of speculation and fantasy.
3. It is more than just a book
While a life story book can provide a narrative, objects can also have a special significance. Our research points to the importance of material objects that helped children make sense of their story, particularly photographs or other objects that birth family members had also touched.
Storing and transporting objects that have meaning for a child as she moves between placements is an important part of placement transition that is easily overlooked.
4. Adopters feel poorly prepared in how to use life story books and how to handle questions
Adopters wanted to be able to respond to their children’s questions about their past honestly and sensitively. They didn’t want to avoid any uncomfortable revelations, but nor did they want to air issues before the child was ready to cope with them.
They don’t want children to feel rejected but want them to understand that even if they were not safe with their birth families they may have been valued and loved by them.
The training of adopters has been developed at Coram with Joy Rees, author of Life Story Books for Adopted Children, to help them understand the purpose of the book, when to introduce it to their child, how to deal with the details of their child’s history and how to ensure the books have relevance for children in both childhood and adolescence.
5. Adopters want to be involved in making life story books
The initial life story book only goes so far. Most parents saw it as part of a continuing record of a child’s journey, both pre- and post-adoption. It should be possible to update the books as the child grows up.
Adopters saw it as important that the physical materials of the book make this possible. So a ring binder worked better than a fixed document, with parents able to add in new pages and to temporarily remove pages that were not yet age-appropriate.
6. Social workers feel that life story work does not receive the priority it deserves
Sufficient time and resource must be allocated to social workers for all elements of life story work, including the collection of information and material for books and to produce the highest quality books. Having a member of staff dedicated to life story work was identified in the research as one way of raising standards.
7. With the right training social workers feel they could produce better life stories
Training for social workers to produce life story books and learn from the good practice of others was a priority for professionals.
Training tailored for professionals at Coram, and developed by Joy Rees, includes guidance in ‘telling the story’, which includes getting the tone of the story right, ensuring there is sufficient detail on why the child came into care and how to produce a book with an appropriate structure and presentation.