Life Story Work in the time of COVID-19 (Recording included!)

IFCO brings you a Series of Online Webinars 2020/2021

Youtube video of the Life Story Work Webinar:

On the 2nd of July, 2020 IFCO kicked off its webinar series scheduled to take place throughout the rest of year. Featured by a panel of three main speakers, this first webinar focused discussion on ‘Life Story Work in the times of COVID-19’. Ms. Jo Derrick, currently a Chief Executive Officer for a National through Care and After Care Charity in Scotland (Staf) and the Vice President of IFCO MC’ed and guided the discussions during the webinar. Ms. Bep Van Sloten, a social worker and International Consultant with a specialization on Foster Care from the Netherlands was a discussant in the panel together with Ms. Catherine Paynter, a social worker and currently an Assessment Coordinator at Key Assets in Ontario Canada.

Before diving into a detailed discussion on Life Story Work in the times of COVID-19, it was necessary for the discussants to help the participants coming from diverse backgrounds and perspectives, understand what Life Story Work means. The panel defined Life Story Work as a way of helping children integrate their past into their present and understand their experiences and history. Life Story Work provides children and youth with tools to map their own life history, develop their identity, connectedness and acquire a sense of belongingness. Life story work is essential for children in care as it helps them to understand their current situation. Through Life Story Work, a child is able to answer questions like “why I am where I am”, and acquire self-efficacy essential to equip the child with abilities to have an active influence in his or her life. Life Story Work also provides the potential of children to find meaning in life and help them to move on.

In Life Story Work, the key is to let the child take the lead. Thus, there could be different theoretical approaches developed to guide Life Story Work but the foundation is letting children tell their story. By telling their story does not only entail verbal expressions by children but also making use of art such as taking photos which would be attached to memories of the children or even playing games with them. It all depends on the child and what is comfortable to them and being creative in engaging the children to tell their stories. Most importantly it is necessary to adopt initiatives that would help children to make connections between events and emotions and understand that other persons in their lives have feelings too that need to be considered and understood.

Why Life Story Work? is one of the interesting questions that featured the discussion. Life Story Work avails children and important people in their lives, such as parents and carers, to talk and get the narratives of what is exactly happening in the lives of children. Thus, Life Story Work gives a voice to the child and the people around the child  and helps them to understand the circumstances of the child in their care. Life Story Work could also provide tools of handling trauma in the life of the child in care as trauma can hugely affect the way in which children behave and react to different circumstances. In order to maximise the potential of Life Story Work, carers and children are encouraged to keep life books or memory boxes to record and keep key facts and events about the child’s life.

Despite the benefits or importance of Life Story Work in the lives of children in foster care or those in out of home care generally, Life Story Work is not free from challenges. One of the main challenges is to make those (parents, carers, and social workers) involved understand that Life Story Work is a process and children do not always work on their schedules or plans. Keeping the child focused and supporting teams around the child during the process are other identified challenges in Life Story Work as this task could be exhausting emotionally. Limited time poses another challenge especially to supervisors and case workers who would sometimes not see the obligation to sit with the child as it is time consuming. To overcome the time challenges, it is important for case workers to work together with foster carers in conducting different tasks involved in Life Story Work. In countries where documentation of child information is not well done, absence of information or story about the children in care might pose a great challenge too.

Amidst all these challenges coupled with the involvement of many persons, it is important to ensure that Life Story Work processes remain child-centred and child focused. One way of ensuring that Life Story Work remains child focused is to train the caseworkers and foster carers to let the child speak, how to listen when the child talks, and hear what the children are really telling through their stories and memories. Training is also important to equip caseworkers and carers to avoid re-interpreting children’s memories and allowing the children to set the pace and be the priority as the process is about them. It is also important to understand that sometimes children might not be interested to continue with Life Story Work process. In order to keep the momentum and enthusiasm of doing Life Story Work, it is important to understand that it all depends on the child and sometimes it is not possible to force them when they are not ready to do the work. However, sometimes carers can continue the Life Story Work even when children fall out of interest. For instance, where there are life books for children, carers out of best practice, can be encouraged to continue filling the book with important memories and events in the lives of children.

Another question that featured the discussion was on how the organisation dealing with children in care can embrace Life Story Work and if there are any ethos or approached to achieve this. In response the discussants noted that the approaches could be very different due to differing circumstances of these organisations and where they operate. For instance, in some places/countries it is complicated by the practice that children can only be seen and not heard. Thus, organisations should be encouraged through international conventions, protocols or best practices to encourage this practice and emphasis on the importance of child identity which can be achieved through Life Story Work. Organisations may be encouraged to facilitate Life Story Work for every child in their care and develop mechanisms to assist carers and children to take an active role in Life Story Work as a best practice.

What is the place of Life Story Work in the middle of  COVID–19 crisis? Should Life Story Work stop? The discussants noted that COVID -19 could still provide an opportunity and Life Story Work need not to stop. In response to COVID–19, carers, including foster carers and carers in group homes, could be encouraged to take on the task of Life Story Work especially due to the fact that COVID–19 could trigger a lot of feelings in children as it might have changed their ways of life and contacts with important people in their lives. It is important however to pay attention to the feelings and reactions of children during this time and where need be Life Story Work could stop if it triggers stresses to children. In a nutshell, Life Story Work helps children to understand their circumstances and through understanding be set together about things that they would want to have a difference but where there is no difference get to accept and get to reform and restructure their lives.

This summary was written by Veronica Buchumi, IFCO Director, a trained lawyer, and currently a Ph.D. candidate in Law at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.