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Life books 101: tips from an adoption worker

Boy sitting on couch holding life book

What is a life book, why are they important, and how can you find the time to make them for children on your caseload?

For answers, we asked Jillian Barath, an adoption worker in Ohio and a strong proponent of creating life books for children in foster care. Jillian has been working with children for 14 years and says that she’s made “too many life books to count” during that time.

What is a life book?

Some people compare them to scrapbooks, but life books are much more than that. Life books are an ongoing project to tell the story of a child’s life. They start when a child comes into care and grow as the child grows.

Every child I’ve worked with has cherished their life book, especially if it is their only link to their birth family. When children are willing to share, life books are a great way to get to know a child. I’ve seen kids share the books with their therapist, potential parents, and new workers.

Life books are often three-ring binders with protective pages and folders, but they can be made through Shutterfly or other online tools, too.

What kind of information is contained in a life book?

There are no guidelines, a child’s life book is unique to them. But a life book should celebrate a child’s achievements and accomplishments and help them fill in the gaps in understanding their lives. Because in foster care, everything gets blurry for kids.

Some of the things that are often incorporated in life books include:

  • Pictures of places the child has lived—even hospital where they were born. Google Maps is a good source for these.
  • A copy of their birth certificate. I once included a certificate with their baby feet—and the boy went crazy with excitement!
  • Good report cards, names of schools they attended.
  • Names and pictures of pets.
  • Medical records.
  • Awards.
  • Pictures the child has drawn—maybe of a favorite memory or day spent with their parent.
  • Notes from birth relatives, siblings, and foster parents.
  • Disks containing videos of visits with birth parents.
  • Something written in their parents’ handwriting.
  • An illustration of their family tree.

What are some of the more creative ideas you’ve heard lately?

As with everything, technology has expanded our options greatly. I had a couple of kids who wanted to know their heritage—one kid really thought he was Italian, and he wanted to know for sure! We got him a DNA test so that he could confirm his heritage, because that was important for him to know. Those results are in his life book.

On the old-school, nostalgic end of the spectrum, I heard about a foster parent who took a measuring tape and marked it up to show a child’s height at different ages, similar to the way that some parents mark up a wall or door frame as their child grows. This measuring tape was a traveling door frame. I thought that was brilliant!

Where do you find information for children’s life books?

Everywhere. I request school and medical records. I send letters to extended family members asking for notes and photos—and most people respond. They want to give a child everything they can.

We try to get information from birth parents during visitations. We keep information about life books in the visiting room, so parents can easily bring or leave materials for their children’s books.

And, of course, I go on the internet, as I mentioned earlier, to find photos and records.

Is all of the information contained in a life book positive?

No, because it’s a realistic picture of a child’s life. There might be death certificates—because those can answer questions—and information about why the children were placed into foster care.

Honesty is really important, because in the absence of information, children will create a fantasy. We’re not helping them move on if we don’t tell them the truth. You want to protect them. But they deserve to know the facts of their lives.

I heard a great suggestion recently to put information that might be too difficult or not age-appropriate at the time into a zip-up pouch in their binder. When the child is ready, they can open it up. That’s the beautiful thing about life books. The child is at the center of the process and in control of what they do with them.

How do you make time to work on creating life books?

It can be hard to make time, because there are so many things that we are dealing with as caseworkers. But people realize that it’s important. And here in Ohio, making life books for children is required by our state administrative code.

At my agency, we schedule a day each month to work on books. We have all of the materials here—binders, printers, crafting supplies. It’s a team effort, and we learn from each other as we do it.

When we’re done, we keep a digital copy of the life book, by taking a color photocopy of each page. Because you never know if it’s going to be lost in a move or destroyed.

How would you recommend a worker who hasn’t had experience with life books begin?

Start by printing out blank pages that can be filled out by the child. Begin at the beginning—by documenting the child’s birth, then going chronologically from there.

There are also a lot of resources online, including life book templates that are free. Two of my favorites are from the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association and Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE).