‘Children deserve the best life story work we can give them’

A life story book worker shares how she works with family members to co-write books that make a lasting difference for adopted and looked-after children, and provides tips for social workers on doing so

Photo: chagin/Adobe Stock

By Hannah Walker, life story book worker for Sharing Stories at CCS Adoption

*names have been changed

Baby Charlie* was unable to live with his birth family, but they were determined that he would know where he came from. Although sometimes painful, Charlie’s birth mother and his maternal birth grandparents all spent time talking with me, sharing memories, anecdotes and explaining what happened in their own words.

Over three sessions, Charlie’s birth mum talked about her childhood, her likes and dislikes, and her hopes and dreams for Charlie. She also showed me where his cot used to be (the glow-in-the-dark stars still visible on the ceiling) and his scan picture on the fridge – allowing me to take photos that his adopters can show him when he’s older.

His birth grandparents also shared many photos and videos, including some of Charlie’s birth mum as a child, and a video of his first steps. Charlie’s grandmother said, “It’s going to be a long time until we get a chance to see and talk to him as an adult and so much better for him to read about us and feel secure about his origins and how much he was loved and cherished.”

‘Memories in care are slippery’

For most people growing up, their narratives and identity are shaped by people around them, who carry their histories and their memories. Their mum or dad might remember the first thing the midwife said when they were born. Older siblings might remember their first words or the swing-fall which explains the scar still there on their top lip.

Yet for children who don’t grow up in their birth families, many of these memories and their context can be lost. Lemn Sissay wrote: “Memories in care are slippery because there’s no one to recall them as the years pass. In a few months I would be in a different home with a different set of people who had no idea of this moment… This is how you become invisible.”

One of the ways we can try to help adopted children understand their past and where they come from is through life story books. These books aim to help children understand their stories and how they came to be adopted. They are a statutory requirement and should be given to children and their adopters within 10 days of their celebration hearing.

Varying quality

Ofsted praise council for life story work

Life-story work was highlighted as an area of “exceptional practice” by inspectors at Telford and Wrekin council. “It is not seen as a ‘one off’ piece of work, but is continually revisited throughout a child’s life and at key developmental stages.”

Ofsted recognise the importance of life story work and this is seen widely in its judgements.

However, life story books are often not being completed within the statutory timescales – the latest it should be given to the child and adopters is within ten working days of the adoption ceremony – and can be of variable quality, or sometimes not even received at all.

In July 2019, Adoption UK’s adoption barometer found that 27% of new adopters felt that they had not been given all the information they needed about their child or children.

Nearly half of new adopters (46%) did not receive their child’s life story book (or equivalent) within statutory timescales and 34% described their child’s life story materials as somewhat or very inadequate. The report stated that where preparation or information sharing had not been thorough, the impact could be devastating – even to the point of placement breakdown.

Top tips for social workers

In my role as a life story book worker for Sharing Stories at CCS Adoption, I co-created two life story books with Charlie’s adopters for use at different ages. We co-write so that adopters have input into language and can feel ownership of the books. Charlie’s adoptive mum said she had cried “a fair bit” reading the books and appreciates how they “describe hard truths in a gentle way”. Charlie’s social worker also commented that the books “highlight how much time and effort it takes” to do life story work, but also “how much these babies are worth it”. All children deserve the very best life story work we can offer.

Part of the reason that Sharing Stories exists is that we recognise how difficult it is for social workers to spend the necessary time on this task, whilst managing high caseloads and levels of risk. However, we know that many local authorities will not have access to specialist services. Below are some suggestions which we hope can help support good life story work.

  1. If a birth parent is attending contact, ask the contact supervisors to take plenty of photos and also some short videos of their interactions. Give the contact supervisors ideas of questions to ask during contact (see Joy Rees’ suggested prompt questions in her book, ‘Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family Friendly Approach‘) so that they can gather some information that way, or encourage foster carers to ask one or two questions in their contact book. These can be really simple such as ‘what is your favourite food/colour/music?’
  2. Can you add some of these simple questions into the assessment period? Cultural genograms can also be a really useful way of gathering rich life story information.
  3. Give birth parents ideas about recording things themselves. For example, encourage birth parents to complete a baby book for their child who will go on to be adopted, complete with photos of themselves as children, photos of relatives, and pregnancy scan pictures. If parents aren’t comfortable writing things, see if they could record themselves on their phones and then help them to send this to foster carers or family support workers if they are not happy to send it directly to the social worker. Help them think of things to record and whether or not they have any objects or baby clothes they want to share.
  4. Use car journeys as opportunities to have conversations about birth family members’ interests.
  5. Even if they are not being assessed don’t forget what valuable information wider family members might have. In Sharing Stories an adult sibling shared amazing information including a eulogy from his parent’s funeral; an ex-partner talked about a child’s parent’s life before their mental illness became so severe; and grandparents have often provided childhood photos or health information.
  6. Don’t forget how important objects are (for more information, see the “trove” project or this article by Debbie Watson, senior lecturer in childhood studies at University of Bristol from the Guardian.)

Hannah Walker is a qualified social worker with a background in child protection work in local authorities. She now works as a life story book worker.

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