Lifebooks for Foster Care and Adoption

Many foster and adopted adults speak with pain about the missing pieces of their history and have chunks of their lives they cannot remember because they were young when they happened.

Imagine a picture of someone that gets cut off at the knees. This is what it feels like not to have or to discuss your history. Adoptees end up with a floating or numb sensation with no past history or roots. I should know.

Adopted children often have secret thoughts about why they were adopted. Many believe that somehow they are responsible for the separation from their birth family. It’s the power of magical thinking.

Beth O’Maley, Adult adoptee

As a foster or an adoptive parent, it’s your responsibility to fill in all the gaps and missing pieces of the histories of the children you care for. you can hold their true, full story until they are old enough to carry it.

Lifebooks are a great way to honor your foster or adopted child’s life – ALL of it.

Lifebooks come in a variety of forms, but the basic premise is to gather information about your child’s life before they came with you and their time with you as well.

Since foster care and the timing of moves are so unpredictable, start a foster care lifebook, or memory books for foster kids as soon as possible. Even if you only gather materials, add one page, or one memory, you can create something that will follow the child throughout their life. Most people wait until the child is either adopted or going to be adopted to start, but they have already lived a lot of life before that happens.

An Adoption LifeBook tells more than a life story. It represents a unique opportunity for parents to honor every minute of their children’s lives. It acts as the single most meaningful piece of “paperwork” that any social worker can complete. As for foster parents, this is their chance to give an adoptee/foster child a sweet childhood memory.

Beth o’malley

When working on it with older children, I let them know that it is a memory book and we want to get all the info we can together so that they have something that talks about their whole lives. For infants and younger kids, I complete it and then pass it on. They can always add to it when they get bigger.

As far as the format – it is wide open. There are many fill-in-the-blank options (see resources below). My favorite format is a 3 ring binder, with some fill-in-the-blank options and plastic sheet protectors. It makes it easy to slide information, medical records, photographs, school work, right in. It also makes it easy to rearrange and add to.

As you are completing your adoption lifebook, be sure that you don’t embellish the details or romanticize the relinquishment or causes of placement. “Your mother loved you so much she placed you with us.” If you say that, they might think that if she loved me so much she gave me away, and you love me so much… are you going to give me away? Instead, you might say, your first mom (or the court) decided that we would be the ones to raise you day to day.

Or “Your adoption was meant to be.” Could lead your child to think, “So, I was meant to have to experience the grief and loss of my first family? That was the best plan.” Instead, you might say, lots of kids really miss their first families and also love their adoptive families, its okay to love lots of people at the same time.

If you are unsure of how to word something, ask an adult adoptee to read your child’s lifebook in confidentiality (not posted on your blog) and ask if there are any unintended messages that slight the complexities of the adoptee experience. I’d also recommend the book Telling the Truth To Your Adopted Child.

Also, be sure that you don’t leave out the harder parts of your child’s story, even if they are too young to hear all of it. There are parts of my daughter’s story that are private and that I will tell her when she’s older. But, seeds of all of it are in her lifebook now. As the adults in the relationship, we are the holders of details that are too adult for kids sometimes. But, they are not a SECRET from our child and the information should not be held from them until they are 18. It’s recommended in book above that you share all information by the time the child is 12 (developmentally).

What may be the hardest part of writing a lifebook is that as parents we want our children’s stories to be happy ones. It is hard to face and document a story that is based on loss and early childhood trauma but every child has the right to their story. It is validation that their life and their story matters. Biological children have baby books, our adopted children have their version: a lifebook.

Martha, Adoptive Mom

Possible Lifebook Sections

  • All about me – Details about them from whatever age they are at the time they make the Lifebook – it can always be updated.
  • All about my birth family – This can be tricky, but gather info as you can. Tell the birth family you want to honor their child by making a memory book and would love their help. It can help break down barriers and help them be involved in the process.
  • Letters from special people – I always write a letter and invite others who are close to the child to do the same – birth family, foster family, etc. This can be a good way to involve other children in the home.
  • Memories from the birth family & past placements – Older kids, I just ask them to tell me some memories while I type them down – works best after you have formed a relationship and they are comfortable with you. For younger kids, I ask older siblings, aunts, uncles or any cooperative birth family members to tell me memories – after I explain what I am doing and why.
  • Memories from their time with you – SO FUN to do anytime but also to revisit as the child is preparing to move on – honor your time together.
  • Photographs – Any you can get from the birth family, past foster families and time at your home as well. (I love photography – so my kids have TONS of photos when they move on. I print out 4-8 for each month spent with me and put the rest on a disk – that they can use to print whatever photos they’d like when they get older).
  • Samples of their school work/artwork etc.  – Every kid’s memory book should have some art in it. 🙂
  • Medical information  – Store it away as you get it – growth charts, immunization records are always needed by the child down the road. Once their primary pediatrician knows you, it usually isn’t a problem to ask for these things a while back as well.
  • TONS of FREE pages available here

Tips

  • Just start. Whatever you do is more than they have.
  • Work on it little by little if the child is helping you. Many times talking about the birth family with the foster family is complex emotionally and can be hard – take their lead and don’t push it. Again whatever you do is more than they have.
  • Make copies – The simple truth is that things get lost when kids are in foster care. You and your foster child have invested a lot of heart and soul in their Lifebook, you’d hate to see it gone. So the best practice is to make at least two copies. Keep one copy with you (the foster family) and give one to the child’s social worker to put in their file. Give the original to the foster child themselves if they are old enough or to an adult in their new placement to keep safe.
  • Encourage the next home to add to the Lifebook and then SEND IT WITH THE CHILD wherever they go next. Whether it is an adoptive home, a foster home, or a group home, that child will make memories there – you want them to keep the ones they have and make more.

Sometimes the hardest part of a lifebook is the beginning. You can do it. Your child will thank you.

Resources


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Learn to create a lifebook (memory book) for foster and adopted children, while child is foster care or after finalization. Hands on tips and resources.

Published by Alisa Matheson, Attempting Agape

I’m Alisa Matheson. Previously a foster parent, an educator, recruiter for teens aging out of the foster care system. I became a full-time contractor and photographer in 2019. I love coffee, deep conversations, snuggles with my kid and justice on the street. I welcome you to share in my journey.

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