Making sense of the past – life story books for young people in care

life story book graphicThe disrupted family life of children and young people who come into care often means the loss of knowledge of their history, the documents and the photographs and the significant memories and associations that come with them. Life story books are mentioned in Families SA practice guidelines as a means to safeguard and make young people’s history available to them. We asked social workers and young people about life story books and how they support some of the most important rights identified by young people in the Charter of Rights.

‘Most children start to show interest in their family and family history when they enter the wider social world of school.’ explains Zoe Dalton, social worker at the Marion Families SA Office, ‘and this is a good time to introduce the life story book.

‘A foster carer of one boy I know of is doing really good work with him at age four on a life story book but this work with younger children is less common.’

Zoe explains how life story books have been typically created by foster carers but how there is a valuable role for social workers.

[I like it when my social worker] explains things really well and treats me like a normal person and not some foster kid. I think she genuinely cares when she helps me and my sister with our Story Books.

(Young person in care)

‘Foster carers are good at documenting the young person’s life within the foster family but venturing into birth family history and the associated issues is somewhere they may not, understandably, want to go.’

For young people in residential care too, social workers may be the guardian of important documents and a reliable and objective person with whom the life story book can be a valuable link.

‘Young people may change workers frequently and the life story book can help a new worker to more fully understand and build a relationship with a young person and also allow the young person to raise issues in a fun and non-confronting way,’ says Zoe.

Some of the Office’s Youth Advisors, however, urged caution, one saying ‘… for some children and young people, connecting or meeting with their family may not be…something they feel ready or comfortable to do.’

Social workers Kate Cameron and Jenny Patten who work for Child Protection Services at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in a therapeutic role, also caution that the process needs to be handled with sensitivity.

‘A simple conversation about family or even viewing a birth family photograph can trigger powerful emotions and distressing memories,’ says Kate.

‘For some children the conversations initiated by the life story book can be very enjoyable while for others the issues may need the coordinated work of foster carers, social workers and mental health services to provide the necessary support,’ adds Jenny.

Zoe agrees, noting that the skills and training of social workers argues for a role for them in life story work.

Kate and Jenny point to the work of Liz Tongerie and the Aboriginal life story book as a culturally appropriate tool used to engage young Aboriginal people and record their history.

Discussing her methods, Zoe explains that she has drawn on resources from the NSW Department of Community Services website to help develop her team’s approach.

Kate and Jenny suggest that having a mandated, structured model could assist busy social workers to allocate the necessary time to life story work but stress that forcing them into a formulaic tick box approach would be a mistake.

‘While it is important to collect and save life information, how and when the information is used needs to be managed carefully for each child and in cooperation with other people who are supporting them,’ says Kate.

Beneficial as the life story book might be as a way of exploring a young person’s history with them, all recognised the young person’s right to opt out, to say ‘Not now.’

The last word goes to an older teenage boy, a client of Zoe’s, who finally agreed to assembling his important documents into a life story book, ‘as long as it doesn’t have to have glitter.’

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