Putting the Pieces Together

Eye on LSSI, Winter 2007-2008 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Clarissa, 17, did not begin to put the pieces of her life together until she was 15 and her guardian, Barb McKay, gave her a Lifebook. While at an adoption support group meeting held by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), Barb, a Rock Island resident, learned about Lifebooks and what they could offer to children. She jumped on the idea and encouraged Clarissa to develop her own Lifebook.

While Clarissa admits she was not thrilled with the thought of creating a book all about her life, she soon discovered that the process was beneficial and found herself feeling more comfortable with it.

“It’s cool to look back now and see what I was thinking two years ago,” says Clarissa.

What is a Lifebook?

Frequently, children in foster care, like Clarissa, do not have immediate, organized access to the tangible memories that most people take for granted. Photographs of family members and foster families, names, addresses and records of personal accomplishments can be lost in the shuffle. The children may lose the explanations of why they have moved and why they are separated from their birth families.

Like a scrapbook, a Lifebook contains pictures and memories. But unlike a scrapbook, a Lifebook contains the vital information of a foster child’s life. It fills a void that the turmoil of foster care creates. A child cannot remember everything that has happened in her life without help from other sources. A Lifebook can hold the key to unraveling the lost details.

“A Lifebook is a ladder out of the hole that so many kids are in. It’s an ongoing process,” says Dr. Jeanne Howard, co-director of the Center for Adoption Studies at Illinois State University (ISU). “It’s a chronological representation of a child’s life that is a means to heal.”

Organized as a blank book with writing prompts and spaces for pictures and messages, a Lifebook allows foster parents, therapists, social workers, birth parents, adoptive parents and children a place to record the information that the children so desperately need.

Once children are removed from their birth homes, information can be lost. Memories of their past may fade. It is difficult for children to remember the details of their lives when they rarely understand why they are moving in the first place.

“A Lifebook is an opportunity for children to document key points in their lives,” says Ruth Jajko, LSSI’s statewide director of Adoption Services.

While Lifebooks offer children a chance to record their past, they are also encouraged to write about current activities and feelings they are experiencing. It illustrates to children that they do have worth, that they are loved and that they can succeed in life.

Says Monica Johnson, LSSI’s statewide post-adoption training and service coordinator, “A Lifebook is a child’s connection to the past that provides hope and insight for the future.”

Lifebooks are meant for the children to bring with them when and if they move to a new home. A Lifebook can also help adopted children look back at their lives and help them make sense of their placement(s). While it is imperative that copies of important pages are kept with a social worker in case they are accidentally destroyed, Lifebooks should be available to children whenever they feel a need to document their lives or have a desire to look back at their past.

A scrapbook is pulled out during special occasions to show off accomplishments and events; A Lifebook is private. Because it contains personal details relating to a child’s birth family and the reasons for placement, a Lifebook should only be shared with those the child deems worthy.

“It’s different because there are pages that talk about fears. There are a lot of private and therapeutic pages,” explains Johnson.

Working on a Lifebook requires input from many sources, particularly when a young child is concerned. If possible, birth families are encouraged to send pictures and letters, and former foster families should send pictures and letters of encouragement.

“Children can draw pictures of their original family,” says Howard. “Yet pictures do mean a great deal, particularly if they are lost. Mourn with the children. It’s just another part of the process.”

Some children are lucky enough to have access to their birth families and extended relatives. In those cases, the child can add as much to his Lifebook as he wants.

Foster mother Markea Burrell’s children have many relatives from whom they can glean information for their Lifebooks.

“My kids love to look at their Lifebooks and ask questions,” she says. “We’ve been lucky enough to add pictures and information of blood siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.”

Even if children are reluctant to participate in the creation of a Lifebook, foster and adoptive parents should still compile information.

“Eventually the child will want to know,” says Johnson, “so foster parents should never stop collecting memories.”

So, foster parents like Barb and Markea, who take the initiative to start a Lifebook with a child and encourage them to work on it, are giving their foster children an invaluable gift.

“We just love it when parents step up and create a Lifebook,” says Jajko. “We’d like all kids who come through LSSI to have a Lifebook.”

With practice, anything becomes a habit, and children who complete Lifebook work have the opportunity to continue working on their Lifebook for the rest of their lives.

Markea takes the time to teach her children how to add to their Lifebooks on their own. She knows that parents do not always realize what is most important to children.

“Every kid should have a Lifebook,” says Markea. “Their lives are documented in this story. How many people can say they have that?”

Addressing the need for Lifebook education

Identifying a gap in Lifebook education, LSSI embarked on a mission to bring the benefits of Lifebook work to everyone.

Recognizing the need for simple, educational and inspirational instruction in Lifebook work, a collaboration between LSSI and Howard grew into the idea for LSSI’s new DVD, “Putting the Pieces Together: Lifebook Work with Children.”

In association with Rhondal McKinney at the Rural Documentary Collection at ISU, Howard and Johnson chose the direction the DVD should take. Using funds from an anonymous donor, their idea began to take shape.

Johnson profiled some of the families she was working with at LSSI who had used Lifebook work to enhance the lives of their children. “None of their answers were scripted,” says Johnson. “Every response was from the heart.”

Barb and Clarissa were featured in the DVD, showing how Clarissa used Lifebook work to make sense of her past and how it also helped her to reconnect with her brother.

Markea, also of Rock Island, and mother to five adopted children and one foster child, was thrilled about being included in the DVD. Her children took part, too.

“It was great fun,” says Markea. “The kids really enjoyed it because it brought up some great memories for them.”

While the DVD explains what a Lifebook is and profiles families who have benefited from Lifebook work, it also gives practical advice from professionals on how to construct and maintain a Lifebook.

From talking about what is included in a Lifebook to teaching parents how to reconstruct children’s past to reiterating how important Lifebook work can be, LSSI’s new DVD will set the standard for Lifebook education.

“We need to empower parents to do this work with their foster and adopted children and give them the tools to get started. This is what we hope to accomplish with the training and DVD,” says Jajko.

Looking Toward the Future

In LSSI’s DVD, parents are given great instructions for putting the Lifebooks together. LSSI also is working towards developing more Lifebook resources for families. A grant from the Community Foundation of Central Illinois enabled LSSI to purchase Lifebooks, disposable cameras and art supplies for its foster families.

Lifebook worksheets are being developed that prompt children on particular topics. For instance, pages with headings such as “Gifts from my Birthfamily,” “My Adoption Story” or “Fears and Worries” give children a chance to examine their feelings.

Pages such as these can trigger thoughts in children that they may not have considered on their own. Children who are old enough to write can fill out the pages on their own, jotting down the feelings that come to mind. Young children’s thoughts can be written by an adult.

“The words should reflect how the child feels, even if the facts aren’t correct at the time. Don’t say they are wrong. It’s their story, so talk to them and examine it,” says Howard. “An amendment page can be included in the back where a therapist or social worker can record the facts.”

Lifebooks are critical for children in foster care. Without the information contained within, children may feel they have no past, and they may lose hope for the future. Having a solid base filled with items from his or her life can make a difference to a child who might otherwise know nothing about the past.

Using this tool, LSSI wants to educate people around the country on the importance of Lifebook work and the DVD, “Putting the Pieces Together: Lifebook Work with Children,” is only the beginning.

“It’s been such a great project. We have to make it come alive for people,” says Jajko. “We want to make a national impact.”

For information on the Lifebook Training DVD, call Monica Johnson at 309/786-6400 or click here.