Katie Wrench and Lesley Naylor, authors of the new Life Story Work with Children Who are Fostered or Adopted, give their fascinating insight into a day in the life of a life story work consultant.
A Day in the Life…
Katie: 8.30 Arrive at work and try to catch up with emails. Reply to a birth mother who has reluctantly agreed to meet to support me with information gathering for her son’s life story. Need to book a room for a couple of hours, anticipating that she will need to express her feelings about the legal proceedings and the role of Social Care in her family life before I will be able to explore more positive stories about the child and their family life. Mindful of what a big decision it has been for her to meet with me, but also a little apprehensive about how I’ll manage strong feelings in the room.
Katie: 10.00 Session with an eight year old looked after boy and his foster carer. We are three sessions into a therapeutic life story intervention. I decide to assess the child’s emotional literacy. He is a big football fan – plays and has a season ticket to watch his local team – so I use footballing magazines to encourage him to create some Mood Boards. Together the three of us trawl through the magazines looking for images of footballers that express a range of basic human emotions – happiness, sadness, anger. I encourage the child to identify the feelings and he uses me and his carer as able assistants to cut the images out ready to stick onto his boards. I am surprised by how well he manages with this task. He is not a very articulate child and it would be easy to assume because of his history that he would struggle to identify non verbal communications, including recognising facial expressions in others. We create boards that will be a great tool later in the sessions when it will be important to support him to express feelings about events he has experienced in his birth family. This is also a good opportunity to get to know more about what is important to him in the here and now. The foster carer is invaluable here in reinforcing his strengths and sharing successes he has experienced in placement. I come out of the session feeling energised and privileged to have been able to share and celebrate his achievements.
Lesley: 11.30 Life story clinic appointment. This is a chance for social workers to discuss a piece of life story work they are doing with a young person, whether it’s for a baby about to be adopted or with an 18 year old who has spent his whole childhood in care.
The social worker comes in full of enthusiasm and questions, which is always a good start. She’s working with a 14 year old boy who has had many short term placements and a very muddled up idea of why he came into care at the age of four. He desperately wants to know more. We start by trying to unpick the tasks in this piece of work; thinking about the whole thing can be rather daunting, especially when it’s only one of so many other jobs of the social worker. We think about where the information for the story can come from and who should be approached. I encourage the social worker to look not only at the official Social Care story to be found in the files but to find out who else knew this boy and what alternative stories could they tell? Family members, nursery and school staff, previous foster carers may all help to bring this boy’s story to life for him. Funny stories; moving stories; things we will never find in the files-and so important.
Then we move on to the time spent with the child and what to actually ‘do’. I want the social worker to consider activities to help the child to feel safe so that he is supported to both tell and hear his story. We plan some activities in the ‘here and now’ such as likes/dislikes, what this boy is good at, what his safe place would be like. We move on to thinking about giving the child a space to reflect on his own memories of his past. This is so important in order to know where to take the work and to assess how able the child is to access his thoughts and feelings about what happened to him. I suggest the activity of sculpting to help the boy express his views on past and current relationships. Having a bag of objects for him to use as symbols of the people who are or have been important in his life creates a 3D genogram which can tell us a lot about how he views his world.
I think this is enough for now and the social worker goes away hopefully feeling more confident and armed with some practical ideas. I felt the session went well but I always wonder whether I touched on all the points I needed to or gave too much information and overwhelmed the social worker. It always feels good to be able to share my experience and knowledge with new workers and one of the advantages of the clinic is that she can always come back as the work progresses.
Katie: 1.00 Meeting with the Steering Group looking at how IT services can support Leeds social workers in the life story process. A new IT service has been commissioned and we are looking at what system requirements we can request that will provide some structure around the process. I am keen to emphasise the need to avoid a manualised approach that ignores the importance of the relationship between the child and worker/carer in the life story process and to highlight the need to personalise the life story for every child. That said, I’m relieved that some thought is being given at a senior level to how as a local authority we can ensure that all looked after children have timely access to high quality life story work – both in terms of process and end product. This new system will save a lot of time for workers by locating all information relevant to life story work including photographs and video as well as text together.
Katie & Lesley: 3.00 Meeting to discuss the training to be delivered in the summer to social workers and social work assistants who are engaging children and young people in life story work. We review the evaluations from the last training to look at areas where we can improve on the material we deliver. A priority for social workers is accessing support in sharing difficult information with children and we think about how we might create a resource that will provide some guidance and structure around common concerns such as domestic abuse, drug and alcohol misuse and parental mental health issues. As always it is important to stress that any information sharing needs to take into account the child’s chronological age, cognitive and emotional abilities and developmental stage.
We both feel very passionately about training delivery and really enjoy engaging with social workers around a subject we feel should have a much higher profile for all looked after children.
At the end of the day we reflect together on our growing understanding of the relevance of life story work in supporting children’s recovery from experiences of trauma and abuse. We are realising that we are increasingly using a therapeutic life story approach as the first intervention before considering our more traditional therapeutic training as art and play therapists.
You can find out more about Katie and Lesley’s book and order your copy here.