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A Tool for Telling a Child’s Life Story

Telling the story should not be a one-time event but an ongoing process as the child grows.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

There are many creative ways for adoptive parents to share their child’s adoption story. Telling the story should not be a one-time event but an ongoing process as the child grows. An effective tool for doing just that is the life story book.

Developing a Child’s Life Story Book

Much like a child’s baby book, the life story book captures and preserves the details of a child’s past before she entered the adoptive family. It connects the past to the present and provides continuity of the child’s life story.

If a child enters her adoptive home as an infant, she will probably have no memory of the people in the past. This is also true for toddlers or older children. The adoptive parents’ task is to become the child’s memory storehouse and to fill in memory gaps with any information they can gather.

“Children will ask the questions they feel they have the permission to ask. They have to be grounded enough and whole enough to ask questions they feel they don’t have permission to ask.”
—Jane Hoyt-Oliver, LISW, Ph.D., Chair of Social Work Program, Malone College

What Goes Inside the Life Story Book?

  The following information, if available, can be written into a child’s life book:

  • Birth information: such as birth certificate, height, weight, time of birth, all the usual information that would be included in a baby book.
  • Why the adoption occurred: This can be written as a story and over time can be completed in a way to meet the child’s developmental needs. The reasons for placement and the places the child lived before adoption can be woven into the story. Letters and pictures from birth parents and/or former caregivers should also be included if available.
  • Developmental information: significant milestones of development. If children were previously in foster care before being adopted, this information may have been recorded by foster parents, who are often encouraged to create life story books for children in their care.
  • Adoption information: this information will bring the life story book up-to-date with the arrival of the child into the family. Pictures of the court finalization, adoption party pictures, and any special mementos should be included.

If the child is older at the time of placement, the following will expand the basic information listed above:

  • Expanded pre-adoptive placement information: In addition to the information listed above, these things should be added if available: names and pictures of people the child was close to, including friends from school, church, scout troops, ball teams, neighborhood friends, even pets. Other things that are important are letters, correspondence from birth family or friends, names and addresses of siblings, and mementos of special events.
  • Educational information: If a child has moved a lot within the foster care system prior to adoption, memories of schools, teachers, and peers can be easily lost in the maze of transitions. This section of the life story book might contain such information as schools attended with dates, names, addresses, and photos (if possible) of classmates, teachers and other important adults, copies of report cards, samples of homework, special projects, pictures, and mementos of special events, awards, achievements, and certificates.Ibid.

According to Betsy Keefer Smalley of the Institute for Human Services in Columbus, Ohio, “Teens, who have spent any amount of time in foster care and enter adoption or independent living, have probably lost track of the important details of their lives. They probably do not have many mementos of their past — little or no birth information or pictures. They do not have a record of where they lived and the people with whom they lived, the schools they attended, and the achievements they obtained. Putting a life book together for a young teen requires investigative work and perseverance. However, it may be the youngster’s only link from a confusing and disjointed past to a more stable future. The life book for the teen should include as much information from birth, medical, and developmental records that can be traced.”Betsy Keefer and Jayne Schooler, Telling the Truth to Your Adopted or Foster Child, (Westport, CT: Begin and Garvey Publishers, 2000), 119.

Where to Find This Information

Finding this information can be challenging. Parents should take a proactive role in gathering information. The following are suggested places to look:

  • Bureau of Vital Statistics
  • Case records and social/medical hospital records
  • WIC clinic, hospital records
  • Birth parents, extended family
  • Court records, intake worker, caseworker, previous caretakers
  • School teachers, counselors, adult leaders, ministers
  • School personnel, teachers, yearbooks, school and community newspapers, coaches, school records, band/music directors, drama teachersIbid.
  • Library
  • City directories (including census records)
  • Phone books
  • Obituaries
  • Genealogy Web sites

How and When To Use the Life Story Book

The life story book should always be readily available to the child. However, it is highly recommended that parents keep the original life story book and make a colored copy for the child to keep. Because the life story book is so valuable for the child, preserving it should be a high priority. Occasionally, a child may become angry and destructive, and as a result, destroy the life story book.

Bringing up the life story book and its contents to a child can be a sensitive subject. Often, birthdays and holidays are emotional triggers for loss issues. These would be good times to mention the life story book and offer to sit down with the child to go over it again.

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