Stories to Inspire

Lifebook work helping Rural and Northern children with permanence

Attending a conference in Ottawa provided Ginger Richards with her first glimpse of the importance of lifebook work.

The regional adoption worker from Rural and Northern was attending a conference in 1997 where a session with presenters from Ottawa caught her eye. She attended and returned to the office, where she immediately began implementing lifeboook work for workers and children in her region.

“I took components of it and started doing it,” says Richards, who did a presentation on lifebooks for the GA’s 14th Annual General Meeting. She has been doing some form of lifebook work with staff and children and youth ever since. Lifebooks may contain photos, mementos, stories or artwork – but they are created specifically so that children in care know their stories.

“It’s really about celebrating their lives,” says Richards.

Their purpose is to tell a child’s story, including details about their birth family, time in foster care and time in school.

She feels lifebook work is some of the most important work that she does, and the changes in the children she works with has been phenomenal.

Richards says lifebook work can be incredibly profound for many children, and one of the biggest outcomes is that children in care can begin to develop a sense of permanence.

“The neat thing about this is that I am finding my kids are slowly…moving towards permanence and relationships.” Richards said this work also helps children in care become more aware of their family of origin history, which is helpful to them.

Richards has also seen a change in workers who do lifebooks. She says staff get excited about doing this work with children.

“I knew it would go over well, but I didn’t think it would be this well. This needs to be seen as a priority,” Richards says of lifebook work.

It’s crucial that all workers have a “kit” that they can take with them to work with children and help bring out some of their questions about their past, says Richards. “It’s an interactive activity that workers should be doing,” rather than just sitting and chatting with children, she says. Often, Richards notes, doing activities such as colouring or Play-Doh makes it easier for children to discuss their feelings.

Children and youth meet regularly for group lifebook sessions in which they draw pictures, paste photographs or learn about their births.

A page might talk about the day a child is born and include the baby’s weight and height. Richards asks hospitals to make children a birth card they can paste in their books, and for schools to keep some of the children’s work throughout the year.

“They are excited with the idea of getting a fancy little birth card with their weight on it.”

Richards also ensures workers ask foster parents to take lots of photos of their foster children at birthdays, Christmas and other events, that can be put into the books.

At the very least, she says, workers should aim to have lifebook sessions with children and youth once a year.

“It’s important to take the last year and think about what’s happened in that year.”

Working on lifebooks together also helps children feel a sense of belonging, says Richards. Children come to the group with similar experiences of being in foster care.

“One little girl couldn’t remember the name of one of her foster families. She was describing the home, and another kid said, ‘I lived there, too!’ They think, ‘there’s other people like them.’”

Her goal for lifebook work is “healthy, significant relationships when the kids leave care.”

A large part of that is understanding that although they may not live with their birth families, they can still build relationships with them and that is OK, says Richards.

“They grow up knowing that I have the best relationship I can with my [birth] mom, and it’s OK to have a relationship with the foster family, too.”

This fall, several leading practice specialists from the GA conducted presentations on lifebook work to workers from Jewish CFS, Central CFS and several Winnipeg units. Each unit received a kit that included games, puzzles, colouring books and pencils. Workers received a binder called “Meaningful Contact with Children and Youth” containing sample pages and sample activities, along with a kit that includes crayons, stickers and glue.

Workers were also provided with ideas for games such as Jenga or UNO which are modified so that children can talk about their feelings.

The hope is that all workers across the GA will eventually have lifebook kits so they can use it with all children in care.

Lifebook work is not scrapbook work. It is about the meaningful, therapeutic conversations that occur as the child’s story unfolds.