Children are deserving of their story. And a connection to their family. The impacts of foster care and out-of-home placement vary for each child but have been proven to cause unique challenges that affect a child’s behavioral, emotional, and mental health. However, providing a detailed and comprehensive story of a child’s journey can help mitigate potential negative impacts and vastly contribute to their future well-being.
This is why a focus on life history is a crucial resource for children in the child welfare system. Creating and maintaining a child’s foster care story through storytelling has been shown to help both the child and their family remember significant events, gain a stronger sense of identity, and even heal from their experiences. Not only has a child faced some sort of abuse or neglect in their home, but they've also been removed from their home, both of which have a separate but significant impact on the child.
Typically, a caregiver or caseworker creates Lifebooks for children in their care by manually printing templates to fill out or simply placing photos and documents into a folder. However, today there are organizations that can help take this work one step further.
Power of Story, a nonprofit contracted with the state of Minnesota, is one such organization. Their team of “Story Specialists” collaborate with youth, caseworkers, providers, families, and other contributors to create detailed Lifebooks with the youth whose stories are being told.
What better time than Foster Care Month to shine the spotlight on Power of Story and other organizations dedicated to doing this important work? I had the pleasure of speaking with Alisa Matheson, executive director of Power of Story, to learn more about the organization’s efforts to make sure every child has access to vital information about their lives and a solid foundation for thriving.
Power of Story: Curating Youth-Led Life Histories
Some children are removed from their parental homes and then reunified, while other children may remain in foster care (relative or non-relative homes) for six months to a year, or remain in long-term foster care, guardianship, and/or become adopted. Along the way there may be crucial information missing that may be beneficial to a child later in life as they gather all the pieces of their story, as well as some caregivers becoming gatekeepers of the child's information.
Power of Story uses a youth-led process that helps young people better understand their past and either gain or maintain connections to shape their future. The process is person-centered, and strengths based. Recognizing that being able to capture history and access additional information is often challenging for social workers, Alisa shared that Power of Story has been curious to know more on a system level: How do child welfare agencies access important data points to capture a child's story? How can case management processes help identify the child’s strengths and enhance the Lifebook process?
“I do believe that technology companies can make a huge difference in building and maintaining a child’s story, even if their out-of-home placement was only for six months,” Alisa says. Technology can strengthen and support the partnership between the child, Story Specialists, and the child welfare agency—all things that make Power of Story so unique.
Story Specialists work with child welfare workers across the state of Minnesota to curate a child’s Lifebook. (Individual counties pay for the cost of Lifebooks for children in their foster care system.) Story Specialists conduct two therapeutic interviews with each youth (6 years and older) and then meet with children on a separate occasion to show them a sample Lifebook. While showing children the sample Lifebook, Story Specialists then start to discuss the child’s history and answer any questions they may have.
From there, Story Specialists begin their detective work to fill in any gaps of the child’s story by connecting with birth parents, foster and adoptive families, child welfare workers, court-appointed guardians, doctors, and therapists. They gather everything from birth information and immunization records to school records and artwork, plus any additional documents or photos to help connect children with siblings and family members.
The goal of this discovery work is to contribute to developing a child’s sense of identity through storytelling, pictures, milestones, and other key pieces of information. Once all content and documents are compiled, Power of Story staff meet with the children one final time before putting the Lifebook together.
Other Organizations That Provide Lifebooks
Power of Story is one of many organizations that have recognized the importance of storytelling to support children who are or have previously been in foster care. Here are a few more:
A Family for Every Child: Located in Eugene, Oregon, “A Family for Every Child” is a non-profit organization that serves families, children, and agencies. They are dedicated to finding permanent, adoptive families for foster children who have not been reunified with their parents and are still in foster care. This organization offers a Lifebook program, where families can create a Lifebook or an adoption Welcome Book with the intent to protect memories that may otherwise be lost during a child’s involvement in foster care or adoption.
Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI): LSSI “helps foster children make sense of their lives.” As the largest, statewide social service provider, LSSI is a licensed foster care agency, providing foster care services, mental health services, residential programs for people with disabilities, and more. LSSI offers four different Lifebooks online for any child, children in foster care, children returning home, and children who are adopted from foster care. They offer an online platform where anyone can purchase the Lifebook that best represents the child’s placement journey. An LSSI specialist will mail the Lifebook and the foster family and foster child can begin keeping track of placement histories, achievements, relationships, strengths, and feelings.
Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parents Association (IFAPA): IFAPA is a group of foster parents who came together to develop a membership organization for foster and adoptive parents by providing resources and support to foster and adoptive families. IFAPA offers over seventy free Lifebook pages for social workers and foster & adoptive families to document a child’s history, accomplishments, and other important events throughout their foster care journey. The Lifebook pages are available as a-la-carte, which allows children to pick the pages themselves, then download and print each page to create a unique Lifebooks that fits their story. Each page can be downloaded and printed. IFAPA says “a Lifebook is a useful tool in any stage of foster care or adoption.”
How Technology Can Help Support the Creation of Lifebooks
Since speaking with Alisa, I’ve been thinking about how technology can help support the critical work these organizations do to compile a child’s story. Our software, Traverse, is one example. (Note: we don’t partner with Power of Story, but we do work with agencies in Minnesota and other states who could benefit from their services.) Traverse helps child welfare caseworkers piece together a complete picture of a child’s past. They could then provide the information they uncover to Power of Story to fill in missing details of the child’s Lifebook. A few examples:
Story Specialists and child welfare workers have an opportunity to collaborate throughout the Lifebook creation process to build the best child story with the information they share with one another. Child welfare workers share content and documents with Story Specialists, which are extracted from their system of record and many times, their paper case files. So, imagine the importance of accessibility to content and documents in this instance, and how these supportive connections retrieve and send information to Story Specialists to speed up the Lifebook creation process. This also includes collaborative efforts with parents, caregivers, and even providers, ensuring that everyone is included along the way.
Digital Case Files
With an electronic case file, the accessibility to content and documents increases, which makes it easier for Story Specialists and workers to collaborate in real time. Physical papers tend to get lost or damaged, and with a digital case file, all important information like a child's first drawing or school records, are always available in the digital file, ready to send to the child or to the assigned Story Specialist. Keeping track of the child's milestones, like birthdays and other successes, is easily accessible and retrievable in a digital case file too.
Photos and Videos
Being able to capture photos or videos in a positive light, like capturing a video or photos of the placement home before the children are placed can help ease the transition from home to placement and reduce fear.
Workers can access information quickly through artificial intelligence tools like machine learning or natural language processing, giving workers the ability to identify positive supports through the power of AI tools. AI surfaces important key factors and prevalent themes in a case without having to search through numerous documents and content. For example, if a caseworker is looking for pictures, artwork, report cards, medical documents, or any other documentation pertaining to the child’s foster care journey, it is easily searchable in the case file. Answers to questions that typically require a bit more digging and time, such as a child’s first placement or the names of individuals who have previously supported the child (think a teacher or coach), can be easily obtained through artificial intelligence too. These positive supports can be identified through the power of AI tools.
When a child is connected to their own story and family, the possibilities are endless. Children can reconnect with siblings, process difficulties, celebrate milestones and strengths, build a sense of identity, or fill in gaps to help reshape their story as they get older. Technology can help by delivering data and information to a nonprofit like Power of Story and other agencies looking to support children in foster care in new ways.
Call to Action
Part of my job here at Northwoods is to help agencies understand all the tools available (technology or otherwise!) to support their mission-critical work. Interested in learning more about Lifebooks organizations? Connect with me on LinkedIn or get in touch with one of our subject matter experts (SMEs) to discuss further Lifebooks resources and supports.
Brittany Traylor is an industry advocate for Northwoods. Her social services background allows her to understand processes and systems in place to help others do their work efficiently and in an impactful way.