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OxfordshireChildren's Services Procedures Manual

Life Story Work

This chapter was added to the manual in May 2018.

Contents

  1. Policy Statement
  2. Purpose of the Policy
  3. What is a Life Story Book?
  4. Who Should Write / Compile the Life Story Book?
  5. How the Life Story work will be undertaken
  6. What Goes Into the Life Story Book?
  7. Types of Placements and Responsibilities
  8. What Materials are Needed?
  9. Starting a Life Story Book and Maintaining it
  10. Life Story Work with Children at Different Stages
  11. Using the Life Story Book

    Appendix 1: What is required in Life Story Book?

    Appendix 2: Memory Box

1. Policy Statement

All children who are placed in the care of Oxfordshire County Council are entitled to, should have, and should be engaged in building life story records which represent a realistic and honest account of their circumstances, their family, identity and an age appropriate understanding of their journey into and through care, and beyond.

Life story documentation should follow the child and be continually updated and added to throughout the time the child is in care.

Information gathered to develop and/or add to a child or young person's life story work will be stored in a secure way where appropriate in a safe lockable place, to protect the child or young person's confidentiality. As this work is so critical for young people copies of key information must be kept – one in hard copy with the child and another electronically in case records.

These records remain the property of the child.

2. Purpose of the Policy

Life story work is an integral part of managing the child's journey into and through care, and beyond.

Life story work is intended to help children in care make sense of their situation; it should attempt to answer the following questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Who are my birth family?
  • Who is important to me?
  • How did I get here?
  • Where have I been?

As well as ensuring the child or young person:

  • Has an increased sense of self-worth;
  • Develops security and a sense of future/permanency;
  • Has positive relationships that are promoted and supported.

Consideration needs to be given regarding how the child or young person's life story will be managed and which approach is considered the most appropriate, this could include collecting memorabilia in a special memory box, using direct work tools, creating a life story book or writing letters. This will clearly depend on the child's age and stage of emotional development, individual circumstances, and the child's ability to engage with the process, specific factors including religious and cultural background, gender, disability or specific educational needs but usually a combination of all approaches is likely to be most appropriate.

There will be occasions when the child or young person may not, for a variety of reasons, be able to participate or engage with the life story process. The child's social worker will need to ensure that information is gathered for future use with the child / young person.

Life story work requires social workers, foster carers, and support staff to agree a plan about who will contribute what. This plan should be started at the placement planning meeting where clear tasks and expectations are agreed; progressed and co-ordinated by the child's social worker and kept under review at the statutory review meeting by the Independent Chair.

A child or young person may have a completely different understanding of what has taken place in relation to the actual facts. The purpose of life story work is to try and ensure that the child or young person ultimately has an accurate understanding of what has happened to them; how this is achieved will need to be agreed and reviewed. A child or young person may not be ready or capable of understanding or accepting of past events, hence the need for an assessment of timeliness, risk and impact on such information being given/ received by the child or young person.

Life story work is relevant for all Looked After Children and is an on-going process which requires revisiting and reviewing throughout the time the child is in care.

3. What is a Life Story Book?

Life Story Work is more than creating a photograph album with identifying sentences giving dates, places and names. It is an account of a child's life in words, pictures, documents and digital records, and a tool to help explore emotions through play, conversation, experiences and direct work.

Life Story records should:

  • Keep as full a chronological record as possible of a child's life; inclusive of details of the child's birth family;
  • Integrate the past into the future so that childhood makes sense;
  • Provide a basis on which a continuing Life Story records can be added to;
  • Be something the child can return to when he/she needs to deal with old feelings and clarify and/or accept the past;
  • Increase a child's sense of self and self-worth;
  • Provide a structure for talking to children about painful issues;
  • Keep a record of positive achievements and activity.

4. Who Should Write / Compile the Life Story Book?

The overall responsibility for co-ordinating life story and memory box information and ensuring that this work is completed with the child is the responsibility of the child's allocated social worker.

Foster carers are responsible for contributing to life story work and keeping life story records (photos etc), regarding the placement and ensuring that this is kept up to date and shown/shared with the child's social worker and the supervising social worker at regular intervals, at a minimum at the statutory review episodes. 

The child's social worker will record, for future reference, why placement change (positives and negatives) prior to the child moving or shortly afterwards depending on circumstances. Carers introduction information should be copied to a child's record together with the change of placement date by the child's social worker.

Life Story Work should start at the Placement Planning Meeting. The detail should be recorded in the summary action table under 'identify/leisure/hobbies'. The detail of the life story work together with identified roles and responsibilities will be recorded in the child's care plan under S.4 identity and social presentation; to remain under review throughout the child's care history at LAC reviews and pathway plan reviews. The Independent Reviewing Officer will seek an update from the social worker and the child or young person's carer, together with an outline of the forward plan.

At the annual foster review the Supervising Social Worker will ask the foster carers what information, documentation including photographs, certificates etc. they have collated for the child or young person and how they have been maintained. The Supervising Social Worker will check what progress has been made and whether the Foster Carers needs any further support, training or materials to maintain or progress it.

A key objective of any child or young person's placement will be to support education achievement and attainment. Education staff have a valuable role contributing information to a child or young person's life story and should be asked to supply appropriate information at regular intervals.

External, independent fostering agencies, foster carers and residential providers of placements for children in care are required to adhere to this policy and procedures document. Contracts and placement agreements will need to set out expectations and how the provider will deliver against the child/young person's Life Story Work needs and plan.

The social worker for the child must ensure that foster carers, residential care staff and reviewing officers have a full understanding of the child's past and the history of why they are in care so that the foster carers and residential care staff are able to support and advise the child or young person if they enquire.

It is a part of the social worker's responsibility to ensure that life story work is a key part of the child's care plan and that all of the relevant professionals including carers are engaged in collecting and obtaining all the information regarding the child life story and ensure that this work is carried out and managed. Line managers must ensure that social workers are meeting this expectation through discussion in supervision and quality assurance activities. The child or young person's own contribution to their life story is crucial and must be encouraged and facilitated.

5. How the Life Story work will be undertaken

Life story needs and plans will be raised at the child/young person's placement planning meeting. The role of the child/young person; carer; parent(s), and key worker will be confirmed at this meeting. The forward plan will be developed by the core group and monitored by the Independent Reviewing Officer at subsequent LAC Reviews.

The child's social worker must ensure that any previous information on life story is provided to the child or young person's carer within one week of the child being placed.

The collation of materials and items will be agreed between the social worker, foster carer, supervising social worker, and the child's family to ensure all of the child's life is covered.

Any direct work with the child or young person on life story will be carried out in a safe and secure environment where the child feels comfortable. It should be completed with the person with whom the child feels most comfortable (directed by the Social Worker). Children of different ages, abilities, disabilities and cultural backgrounds may not be able to directly engage in the work, in such cases social workers will need to think and work creatively to ensure that every child and young person has a meaningful and accessible life story – see Section 10, Life Story Work with Children at Different Stages.

An agreed time frame for the start and progression of the life story will be agreed at the child / young person's Looked After Child Reviews. Progress of life story work should be a regular agenda item at supervision between workers and their line managers.

There may be occasions when the child or young person will not feel comfortable to engage in this work and it is crucial to accept this and go at the child's place.

If professionals involved believe that a child requires therapy and that undertaking Life Story Work would not be helpful at this stage then this must be taken in to consideration however, it will not necessarily prevent life story work being undertaken and should not prevent the on-going collation of materials that will be used at a later date.

At this stage Life story work focuses on what is happening to the child now and how they can move forward with support.

All relevant parties should be made aware of the life story work being undertaken through the child's Looked After Child Reviews, care planning meetings and in the supervision of foster carers and social workers. If the foster carers or residential carers need to do work with the child or young person as something arises, guidance should be obtained from the child or young person's social worker.

It is important that at each stage a child or young person's case is transferred to another team and at the end of their period in care a check is made about who has life story records and where they are. A note must be recorded on the child's file to this effect. For children who have been Looked After Children, but are not yet receptive to receiving information about their past a letter should be sent to the young person and a copy held on file acknowledging this fact. There should be a clear note on file advising who is best placed to discuss life story work with the young person if it is requested at a future date.

When the plan is for a child or young person to be adopted, the social worker who knows the children must write a later life letter. The letter needs to be realistic and sufficiently detailed so that the young adult fully understands their life before adoption, why they could not remain with their birth parents, and why they were adopted. The prospective adopters must be given the letter within ten working days of the adoption ceremony, please see separate policy on Later Life Letters.

6. What Goes Into the Life Story Book?

Please note that for most adopted and fostered children, Life Story Work should follow the format of present-past-present-future i.e. it ends with a hopeful future and does not risk upset by starting with the past.

Information to be collected relating to the child's past.

  • Family tree - back three generations if possible;
  • Photos of maternity hospital (and, for younger children, a clock showing the time);
  • Weight, length, head circumference at birth;
  • Birth certificate, if possible;
  • Any items from the hospital (e.g. identity tag);
  • Dates of first smile, sounds, words, tooth, steps etc;
  • Photos of parents;
  • Photos and maps of places where the child lived;
  • Photos of relatives;
  • Photos of friends;
  • A truthful life history - including abuse, neglect etc. - that is age appropriate to the child. More detail can be added later as the child needs to know;
  • Parents' stories (also parents' likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests and traits – characteristics etc);
  • Messages from birth parents / Why birth parents gave the child their specific name;
  • Details of siblings;
  • The child's views and memories;
  • Photos of workers and their roles;
  • Story of the court process;
  • Photos of carers and their family;
  • Story of family finding;
  • Details of ceremonies (e.g. baptism);
  • Anecdotes;
  • Details, mementos and photos of holidays;
  • Favourite foods, likes and dislikes;
  • School attainments / hobbies / favourite toys etc.

See Appendix 1: What is required in Life Story Book? for more details.

7. Types of Placements and Responsibilities

Internal foster placements

Oxfordshire County Council foster carers are responsible for ensuring the child's life story information is kept up to date whilst in placement and for evidencing what they are doing and discuss what they are planning to do as next steps. Information such as observations of a child, personality, successes, funny anecdotes are all things a child will enjoy reading about themselves.

A few anecdotes from the foster carer/residential worker can be added to records but this should not distract from the main story. Examples of information to be collected by carers and residential staff are:

  • Descriptions of what the child was like when they arrived, what they liked and disliked;
  • Details of development e.g. learning to ride a bike;
  • Their own special memories of the child;
  • Special and landmark occasions birthdays, holidays, religious festivals;
  • Details/photos of the family or staff members Inc. extended family, friends and pets;
  • Spiritual rituals the child liked;
  • Souvenirs of school;
  • Illnesses.

Connected persons

There is often an assumption that if a child is placed with a 'connected person' that they will be able to share a realistic account of the life story of the child. This is not always the case and care needs to be taken to ensure that the connected person is helped to understand the importance of sharing accurate information about the child.

External placements

The contracts with independent external fostering and residential providers includes the expectation that life story information will be collected in keeping with OCC's policy and procedures. As part of the quality assurance process for external providers, the commissioning team will obtain evidence from providers that the life story policy is being complied with.

Residential homes

Residential homes may not have the same environment in which to undertake life story work and this needs to be taken into consideration when deciding how best to undertake this work with the child or young person. Life story work will be discussed at the placement planning meeting and where appropriate progressed. The plan needs to be confirmed by or at the first Looked After Child Review confirming whom within the residential home will take responsibility for the life story work and plan. For some children and young people in residential care work may need to be deferred with the child until they are safe and secure.

Secure units

There will be specific limitations in engaging some young people placed in secure units. A discussion needs to take place between the care staff at the secure unit and the child's social worker and Independent Reviewing Officer detailing what information is collated and shared until an appropriate time when this can be shared with the young person.

Shared care

A number of children's care plans involve shared care arrangements with foster carers or residential homes. These children remain living with their parents and stay regularly with a specific carer for short breaks. It is anticipated their foster carers/residential homes who provide short breaks will also contribute information concerning the child or young person i.e. photos of significant events and provide this to the child or young person's social worker or family.

Adoption

All children who are adopted must have a life story book and a later life letter completed within 10 days of the adoption ceremony; this is a statutory requirement.

The life story book should be started prior to the child being placed in their adoptive placement but will be completed following the adoption and with the prospective adopter's involvement. The life story work should be shared with the prospective adopters and in stages; stage one (past) by the secondary statutory review of the child's placement with the prospective adopters and stage two (present and future), at the latest together with the later life letter, within 10 working days of the adoption ceremony, i.e. the ceremony to celebrate the making of the adoption order. It would be anticipated that if a child has a memory box or foster carer's photo album etc. this would be given to the prospective adopters at the point of placement.

The life story book should be written in the present i.e. post placement for adoption: in the child's adoptive (not birth), name and should include the making of the Adoption Order and end with looking to the future as part of their new family.

The adopted child may wish to share parts of their life story book to their new family and friends but care must be taken as the book will include information on third parties i.e. photographs, addresses and foster carer's information.

Once the life story book and later life letter are completed, a copy should be made and placed on the child's adoption file in case the original is lost or destroyed.

8. What Materials are Needed?

The presentation is very important in terms of validating the importance of the life story and motivating the child to contribute, want to read it, show it to others and be proud of it. The following are suggested for use:

  • A loose leaf folder with strong plastic wallets – it must be durable to last a lifetime;
  • Always work on clean paper;
  • Drawings and photos should be mounted;
  • Use neat headings;
  • An extract of a child's own dictated words may be;
  • Use good quality copies/photocopies of treasured photos, documents etc. and not the original;
  • Use words to tell the story and a few pictures to illustrate;
  • The social worker writes the book, keeps an electronic copy uploaded to the child's record and provides a hard copy to the child/family;
  • A Memory box is a means of keeping all the items together that are particularly meaningful for the child or young person including photographs, certificates of achievements and special items which all help the child's sense of self-worth.

9. Starting a Life Story Book and Maintaining it

All life story work needs to be done in a safe secure and sensitive way which is child centred and in the best interest of the child or young person.

A risk assessment and analysis should be completed prior to undertaking direct life story work with a child or young person to establish whatever is the most appropriate way to involve them.

Information obtained should be kept in a safe, confidential and lockable place. Sensitive information and important documents, including photographs should be stored safely by the child's social worker and /or foster carer, residential placement in a confidential and lockable place, and measures taken to ensure that these are not passed to anyone who should not have access to them. Copies of key documents etc should be kept by the social worker, one in hard copy and another electronically. Photos can be scanned onto the child's 'life story work episode' and originals held in a memory box.

10. Life Story Work with Children at Different Stages

Under five's

Children under the age of 5 need to have a very basic understanding of what has happened to them. The life story work needs to be completed in a sensitive and simple format, usually through the use of creative play, to give the child a sense of identity and why they are in placement.

Social workers are required to provide:

  • A chronology;
  • Information on health;
  • Family background; and
  • To assist carers in the completion of the life story work.

Foster carers and social workers will need to keep significant objects or photographs which are important to the child.

Pictures of the creative play should be taken and put into the life story book as a record of what has been discussed.

Children of primary school age 5-11

From the age of 5 children are beginning to develop an awareness and understanding of what has happened to them and they may need more in-depth work undertaken with them.

Time needs to be taken to give the children the understanding of how their past should be introduced to them. This could be by using interactive DVD, wall paper used to look at time lines, positive and negative events in the child's life. Extracts can be scanned for life story books.

Some children will be ready to talk, discuss and listen at this age, but others will not be ready. The children should be given the opportunities to explore their past if they are ready, but not forced to if they are not. If they are not ready, on-going opportunities to think about their readiness must be provided to them.

Children of secondary school age 11-16

At this stage most children have a better understanding and start to ask specific questions about their circumstances. Young people need to be talked to more openly, but with care in relation to their maturity and emotional development. Young people at this stage are asking questions and probing the reasons they are in care and need to have opportunities to explore and talk in an appropriate and constructive way that best suits them.

Young people leaving care 18+

Young people often request to see their files when they leave care to gain an understanding of why they did not always live with their birth parents Files will need to be prepared to ensure that the information meets the requirements of the Data Protection Act.

11. Using the Life Story Book

Children need truthful and honest explanations that they can understand - that means using language they know. It is important that: Questions are answered as honestly as possible:

  • Adults admit when they don't know the answer and offer to try and find out (rather than making something up);
  • Children are helped to accept that not everything can be explained or understood;
  • Information is given sensitively and honestly - protection and evasion leads to confusion and fear;
  • Children may outgrow life story records and books and may need more detailed explanations and information at different stages.

Adults help children to realise which feelings are healthy and acceptable by:

  • Discussing their own feelings frankly. If feelings are ignored, children get the message that to express them is wrong;
  • Bottling them up can lead to negative behaviour like aggression or withdrawal;
  • Adults never pretend abusive/bad relationships didn't or don't exist.

Appendix 1: What is required in Life Story Book

See Section 6, What Goes Into the Life Story Book?

Life story is important and every child should have this work started as soon as they come into care and it must be updated continually by all parties involved with the child.

Information about the child's story needs to be shared through reports and discussions with foster carers, residential staff and potential adopters so they have a full understanding of the child who is being placed with them. The life story work is for the child.

The child's foster carer, residential staff and adopters should care for Life Story records and the social worker should have an electronic copy which is kept safe.

All life story records should have the following sections to ensure all of the child's life is captured:

  • Genogram of all family members and how they link together;
  • Picture and description of family members' date of birth and relationship to the child;
  • Details of where the child was born, if possible child's birth weight, picture as a baby and picture of the hospital;
  • If parents will agree a statement informing the child about their birth and details about their own birth;
  • Chronology of life events;
  • Details of each placement the child has had, the names of foster carers, information regarding why the child left a placement with positives and memories recorded;
  • The names of the schools the child has attended, picture of the schools and if known who the teacher and friends were. Child could add comments here on how they felt about the school and what memories they have;
  • Details of the allocated named social workers and the role they played in the child's life. A letter/note or card from the social worker when they left and why. Comment from child about the social worker if they wish to do so;
  • Details of Independent Reviewing officers, age appropriate information on what their role is within the child's life and a letter/note or card from them when they stop working with them;
  • Information on any other significant people who are in the child's life that the child wishes to include in life story records;
  • Summary of why the child is in care, written in an age appropriate manner. This will need updating as the child matures and gains more understanding;
  • Overview of why parents were unable to look after them. Open and honest at the child's level. This should be shared when the child is ready and not before;
  • Health issues within the family;
  • As much information that can be gathered from birth family for the child. If possible photos of when they are little, memories the birth family has of the child as a young person;
  • The child's likes and dislikes;
  • First day at school and any other school placements;
  • Photo taken and short write up talking about when the child first arrived with social worker in placement;
  • Photographs should be taken of the child throughout placement and kept in album and updated on a regular basis with comments and thoughts put in the book from foster carers and the child.

Appendix 2: Memory Box

Memory boxes are important for a child in care. Theses should include important sentimental and trivial items which are important to the child and give them a sense of belonging. The box should be continually updated and passed on to any other placements that the child goes to.

All items in the memory box should be photographed and kept safe and secure so of anything should happen to the item a copy of it is always available.

Some example items:

  • Hand prints / foot prints;
  • Hair;
  • Medical Red book;
  • Both parents hand prints if possible;
  • Baby book;
  • Newspaper from the day baby born;
  • Coin collection;
  • Holiday photos;
  • First pair shoes / clothes;
  • Favourite toy;
  • Holidays.

Take photographs of the child during some contact with their family and placed in an album for the Memory Box.

Where appropriate, the child should have pictures of their birth family.

Young people may have confidential items from their past that are sensitive and should not be shared with anyone but the child. The child may not be ready to process the information at the time. These items need to be stored in a confidential way by their case managers and kept until the young person is ready.