Life stories
Life stories

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Life stories

2 Working with memories – life storybooks

Life story books are used more and more by social workers, residential care staff and some foster parents with young people who, for various reasons, need to find ways to remember and talk about earlier parts of their lives. The books may take a variety of forms: photograph albums, scrapbooks, written accounts and audio and video recordings. They may include drawings, poems, family trees, letters, bus and train tickets, photographs, writing and all sorts of ephemera that evoke the past, or provide clues to identity and individual histories. Children who grow up in the families they are born into usually have plenty of opportunities to find out about their parents and wider family members, the places they have lived in and the reasons for any changes they've experienced. Children who experience separation from their birth families often face greater obstacles when it comes to finding out about parents, grandparents, homes and communities they've lived in. There may be gaps and difficult areas in accounts of their identity and they may have to work out ways of dealing with difficult memories and emotions. They need to be able to explain what has happened to them and to move on to develop plans for the future. People working with children find that a life story book can help a child to talk about losses, changes and separations and to remember the good things they've experienced too.

Jamie Knight is 21. He lives with his girlfriend and baby daughter. He hasn't lived with both his parents since he was five. He's experienced many changes in his life. We recorded him talking to Sarah Burrows, who used to be his residential care keyworker, about how they made a life story book when he was 10.

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Transcript: Jamie and Sarah

In the first of two interviews on this tape, we hear Jamie Knight talking to Sarah Burrows about the life story work he did when he was much younger. Jamie is twenty one now, and begins by talking about how he came to be living in care.

JAMIE KNIGHT.
My father used to beat me a lot, I used to steal a lot and, you know you can't put the blame on me for that. And generally I don't think my parents cared, you know one day they just up and said right that's it we've had enough, we'll put you in care, and they did. So I was put into care. For a couple of months I was at Yarnton House and they had a meeting, you know they said to me, if you had the choice to go back and live with your parents or continue living in care what would you do, and I said I'd rather live in care.
But whilst at Longhouse was when we did the life story book wasn't it, yeah. Was going through a bad patches, there were some good patches, we thought it'd be a good idea. So I could remember when I was older, and it's fun.
HELEN.
Sarah Burrows is a social worker, and remembers when she first met Jamie.
SARAH BURROWS.
I met Jamie when he was nine when he was at Longhouse Children's Home, and I joined the staff team about two months after he joined the home. His parents had put him into care for stealing thirty six p. wasn't it, and that was the time when children came into care on the voluntary care route. And he came into care as a punishment really, wasn't it, from your parents, and unfortunately you ended up staying in care for a long time. Jamie didn't show remorse did you for what you had done understandably you were only nine years old and didn't understand, and your parents wanted you to stay in care.
And, even more unfortunate was that you lost complete contact with them, all contact with them, with everybody, absolutely everybody, your sisters, everybody, and it was decided that Jamie needed a family, long term care couldn't be the answer. Your social worker at the time had to look for foster carers. But Jamie was obviously quite an angry little boy, very upset, abandoned, and actually needed some help to understand why he was there. And we felt that if we had a book and did a book then it would be I. he could understand and 2. something you could show your new foster carers really.
And it was felt because I was his key worker that we actually had quite a good relationship, and I was the best person to do it, and his family placement worker and social worker would support me in doing that, so that's what happened.
HELEN.
Jamie's life storybook is mainly photographs, with some information as well.
JAMIE.
On the first page we've got my mum and dad when they got married, the date they got married and the date I was born, er all written on nice little cards, and I've written on them like my parents were married and the one about me being born I've written "me", quite simple.
Next page we have baby photos ofme, the only ones we have, although they don't look, I don't think it is. And then we've got the trip to Southend we've got like a photo of me standing outside the flat where I lived with my dad, and then we've got a picture of me standing on a street comer, it says er 'mummy' and er, next pages it's got the date I was taken into a place of safety. And then the date I was er fostered, and the names of the foster carers and my foster brothers and sisters. And we have photos of me when I was in foster care with my two foster brothers, and a photo of me when I was at primary school.
SARAH.
And in fact the foster mother was really helpful wasn't it, that the how you were in care and providing loads and loads of photos. She had - they were all from her weren't they do you remember.
JAMIE.
And then er more pages we have er me with a group of people who I hardly recognise. I recognise er Miss Fraser. That's about it. The picture ofme with the rabbits, minding somebody else's rabbits while she was on holiday - more pictures of me with a dog, I don't actually remember the dog. Picture of me with me foster sister, handcuffed to her, and next pages we have a photo ofme going to someone's wedding, standing next a Rolls Royce. More photos of it. We have a little photo of me and my two foster brothers at a passport photo booth, sort of thing.
HELEN.
Part of the process involved going back to the places in Southend where Jamie had lived when he was first in foster care when he was five.
JAMIE.
The school I was at when I was living with the Frasers, foster parents. Me and Sarah eating chips on the beach. Tlie photo when Mrs Fraser my foster mother was crushing me to death.
SARAH.
That was quite hard I think actually, wasn't it, because she looked after you for a while, and then we went back to visit a few years on, and I think her cuddling you you actually found it quite difficult, because it was somebody from your past 'cos you hadn't seen anybody from your past at all, the whole time you'd been in care.
JAMIE.
No, it did feel strange.
SARAH.
And she was so pleased to see you, and you her. But I think you both found it quite overwhelming really. Difficult.
JAMIE.
Then we've got more photos, and another one of this one's of me feeding chickens when we went back to in the back garden of the Fraser's house when we back to see Southend. Another one of me eating some dinner with one of my foster brothers, or old foster brothers. The climbing frame that I played on as a kid, me me and one of my foster brothers got on it and hanged upside down which brought back a lot of memories, which is good. Social services building we went back to visit. There's the sandpit, you see.
SARAH.
Yeah and that was significant because of erm all your contact visits when you were taken on a place of safety, into care were there because they had to be supervised weren't they. And so what looked like a funny old building had quite strong memories for you really.
JAMIE.
Mm well it was just after I was put into foster care my dad decided that he didn't want me in there and he tried to get me back out but it took him nearly a year.
SARAH.
Right but also what had happened was there was a whole new family, because it had been your dad and you living in a flat because your sister had gone to your mother, and there had been your dad and you, and then your father met somebody else who had two girls, and also got custody of your sister, so you then had to go back to a new family situation of your dad, your birth sister, two stepsisters, and you actually all had to live together, and it was also trying to document that and look at that.
And although we've only got pictures and things written, it was more of a process of talking about it for weeks really, of how difficult it was for Jamie to do that. Do you think, .... .it was that really. You know you maybe have three pages but that could actually be three months worth of how difficult it was for you, you know you felt you knew your father, and knew his moods but suddenly you had to contend with a stepmother and three sisters.
JAMIE.
Mm, it's like it says here er I saw my mother twice while I was at the Frasers and then I never saw her agam.
SARAH.
And that also again was another time that that took quite a lot of dealing with didn't it, so how old were you?
JAMIE.
What when I was in, five.
SARAH.
And you have never seen your mother since, that sort of at ten when we were doing this work, was quite difficult really, talking about your mother and what you remembered about her and that you never saw her again, and that you have no knowledge of her whereabouts.
JAMIE.
No. Course like for this it would have been nice to have some photos, cos I can't remember what any of them look like, without photos you don't remember, do you?.
SARAH.
No. And for other people I mean I think now it'd be better someone coming into care I think people are more aware and probably they would ask for photos when children came into care, so that wouldn't happen. But eleven years ago things were a bit different really.
HELEN.
Jamie talks about how he felt about the process.
JAMIE.
I wouldn't do it any different. I'd like to have more photos, you know ofmy family. But er, no it was it was good.
SARAH.
If you didn't have that, how much would you remember?
JAMIE.
Not a lot. Probably only things like their names and things like I can get from the social services now, which isn't a lot.
SARAH.
And why isn't it a lot?
JAMIE.
Cos it got burnt.
SARAH.
There was a fire at Banbury Social Services, and Jamie's always said that when he was eighteen he wanted access to his file, and erm it was very soon after your eighteenth birthday wasn't it?
JAMIE.
Mm, I said to myself and Sarah that when I turn eighteen I'd er get my file, so I could look through it and remember things as well. But er not long after my eighteenth birthday I'd, you know, written a letter to get my file, I got burnt in a fire, it was all the early years from when I was young, file all about that and I could get my file about from a teenagers onwards but I can I can you know, I remember all that, so it's no good.
SARAH.
Do you remember how you felt?
JAMIE.
Gutted, angry, you know. Cos I had applied for it you know.
SARAH.
And what did you hope to get from the file?
JAMIE.
Things about my parents, and a chance to remember things like from when I first went into care and stuff. I wanted to get like all the addresses of where my parents lived, like the last known address and stuff like that, but we managed to get that anywa, didn't we? So er, but I couldn't get.
HELEN.
Sarah and Jamie talk about what happened after they worked on the life storybook.
SARAH.
It didn't really end because it's ongoing because of his time in care.
JAMIE.
We just did up until that time didn't we, up until when we were doing it.
SARAH.
And then he's got a follow on book of all his time ...
JAMIE.
Whilst in care.
SARAH
. . . Whilst in care ...
JAMIE.
Photos of people and the house.
SARAH.
So it didn't really end, whereas if you were a worker coming and working it would be a sort of time limited thing, when you would have to end. But as a residential worker it didn't end, it just canied on. Really, and then you've added your own bits haven't you you've put all the photos from Longhouse in there. And you didn't have access for instance to your birth certificate then, but you've got it now and I've noticed you've put it in there.
JAMIE.
Yeah and like photos what was taken for when I was gonna be fostered, and the little bit that went in the book.
SARAH.
Yes there was an advert done for Jamie enn in my be my parent book, and Jamie's stuck that in as well so it it's really ongoing, it's somewhere to put those bits that are given to you as well. And and thinking about it I mean you'd only got your birth certificate when you left care at eighteen and you've put it in since, you know at obviously eighteen plus, and you started the book when you were nine or ten so, eight years on you still stuck something in it, haven't you?
JAMIE.
It's like now it doesn't have to stop, you know like I can continue with like photos of my girlfriend and my baby, you know. Things that have happened recently. In the last three or four years. It's good, it is good to do. I'd recommend it, I don't think even you know this Sarah, that er through my life story book like remembering stuff like that about my sister and stuff like that, I now know where she lives. And that's good 'cos I want to get in contact with her. It's plucking up the courage ..... (Laughs)
End transcript: Jamie and Sarah
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Jamie and Sarah
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Activity 3: Life story work

0 hours 30 minutes
Figure 4
Figure 4 On the beach at Southend: Jamie aged 10 with Sarah Burrows and Jamie Knight at the time of the recording

Listen to the Audio clip. You may need to listen to Jamie and Sarah twice while you make notes.

While you are listening, note down:

  1. some of the things Jamie mentions collecting for his life story book

  2. some of the feelings and emotions he and Sarah mention while they were making the book.

Discussion

  1. Some of the things Jamie mentions are: the date his mum and dad were married and his birth date, ‘all written on nice little cards’, some of his own writing, some baby photos, pictures of him taken outside his father's and mother's houses, more dates and several photos taken by his first foster mother, photos of himself and his foster mother when he went back to Southend, a picture taken of the social services building, photos from the time he was in residential care, his birth certificate and photos taken when he was advertised for fostering as a teenager.

  2. Jamie and Sarah mention various feelings and emotions. Jamie says making the book was ‘good’. Sarah says he was ‘an angry little boy, very upset, abandoned…’. She says it was ‘hard’ and ‘quite overwhelming’ going back to see his foster mother while they were researching what to put in the book, because it was ‘somebody from your past’. The picture of the social services building is ‘sad’ to Jamie. Sarah points out that the ‘pictures and things’ don't really show the whole process which was actually ‘difficult for Jamie to do’, particularly remembering his mother whom he hadn't seen since he was five (and still hasn't).

    One of our course testers who was abused as a child said that she could ‘totally relate’ to the process that Jamie went through. She had felt almost anonymous, without a childhood, until she was 40. Once she realised that she had been emotionally abused she was able to understand why she had never loved her mother. She says she is certain that knowing about her childhood is important to her as an adult. When she became able to remember what happened her feelings about her mother became acceptable to her.

It's important to note that some of the things that happened to Jamie couldn't happen today. The 1989 Children Act (England and Wales) no longer allows what Sarah describes as ‘the voluntary care route’ through which his father put him into care when he was eight, although it does allow for children to be ‘accommodated’ at the request of those with parental responsibility. And of course we'd hope that in working with a child like Jamie social workers might be more careful to help him keep more of the photographs and personal things which anyone needs to look back through their lives. Making life story books with children who have become separated from their original families is now established as good practice, particularly since the Children Act of 1989 with its emphasis on partnership in working relationships with parents and carers. Tony Ryan and Roger Walker have helped children make life story books for many years – they emphasise that good practice means ‘listening to children and respecting their views’ but also warn that it may not always be appropriate for every child and that it should never be used as a substitute for ‘skilled and long-term therapy’ (Ryan and Walker, 1999, p. 4). Nevertheless they argue that:

Life story work can increase a child's sense of self-esteem, because, sadly, 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. They blame themselves for the actions of adults.

(p. 6)

Ryan and Walker stress the importance of identity and point out that the ‘creation of the idea of “self” is crucial to healthy development’ and that children who have been ‘severed from their roots and [who are] without a clear future’ can be helped if they ‘talk about the past, the present and the future’ (pp. 6–7). Sarah Burrows started the life history with Jamie Knight at a time when he was about to be fostered. She saw it as a way to help him talk about his feelings and perhaps not blame himself or his parents for his past as part of preparation for the future. Jamie had very little left of his early years. Just a few things seem to stand out. At one point when Sarah asks him about his visits to his dad's new family he says ‘I can't really remember, I can only remember things that are written down here.’ The importance to Jamie of piecing together these fragments comes through very strongly, particularly since his own file was destroyed in a fire.

For Jamie, as with other young people who become involved in making life story books, this is a process which has no end. He points out that he can go on adding to it now and it has helped him to remember things about his sister from whom he became separated when he was taken into care and whom he's now thinking of contacting.

Click to view Why do Life Story books work? [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Activity 4 Life story work: developing awareness

0 hours 20 minutes

You should now read the extract above (click on 'view document'). This is the introduction to Ryan and Walker's book, Life Story Work, I quoted from above. Read through the extract and, as you do, note down:

  1. some of the basic principles they advocate as essential for this work

  2. how many of these principles you would say apply only to work with children and young people.

Discussion

  1. The basic principles I noted down included:

    Rights: ‘children are entitled to an accurate knowledge of their past and families’.

    Patience and sensitivity: the process may take time and may develop at a varied pace over days; letting the child be the guide to what is to be told and how.

    Confidentiality: being trustworthy and being aware that a child might be telling a private story that is not for public consumption.

  2. You may have felt like me that on just about every point these principles might apply at any age or stage of life or situation. However, where an adult is concerned there might be a question raised over how family members might be involved or participate. This might be particularly important in relation to people with learning disabilities whose status as adults may not easily be accepted by parents. Think back to Lynne and her father and ask yourself how easy it would be for her to make her own life story book with her father's involvement and participation.

The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAFF) has produced a life story work book for children to write, draw and stick pictures in as well as guidance for an adult doing life story work with a child. The book also includes pages for children adopted from overseas or with a disability to record information and encourages children to record their thoughts and their feelings.

Key points

  • Children who have had experience of separation and loss in their lives can be helped to deal with this through finding ways to tell their life stories.

  • Life story work is as much about dealing with the present and preparing for the future as it is sorting out feelings about the past.

  • Life story work may not be appropriate for every child and the child's wishes should be respected at all stages.

  • There are basic principles in life story work which could apply at any age or stage of life.

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