Did you know there are 12 million children living in England, and just under 400,000 (3%) are known to the social care system at any one time? Just over 80,000 of these are Children in Care (1). Of this group, 2,950 children in England were adopted in 2022 (3.7%) (2).
And, as of March 2022, there were 152 local authorities across the country responsible for ensuring and overseeing the effective delivery of social care services for children.
So I can hear you now saying “why am I being told about statistics?” Well, as an average, this means that each local authority will have progressed only 19 children’s care plans per year to permanence via adoption orders.
In reality this is a very small number when compared with the number of social workers in each local authority. Is it therefore any wonder why social workers don’t always have the knowledge, experience and confidence to prepare such important documents as life story books and later life letters? Even if you’ve received training, you may not have been able to use the knowledge you’ve gained if you’ve not worked with a child who’s progressed to adoption.
Is it therefore any wonder why social workers don’t always have the knowledge, experience and confidence to prepare such important documents as life story books and later life letters?
What is a life story book and a later life letter?
The life story book represents a realistic and honest account of the circumstances surrounding the child’s adoption. The Department for Education’s National Minimum Standards for adoption state that its format is appropriate to the child’s age and understanding and accessible for use by the child, and that prospective adopters are encouraged to update it with the child as their understanding develops.
A later life letter should explain the child’s history from birth and be sufficiently detailed so that in the future the adolescent child, or young adult, will have factual details about their birth family and their life before adoption, and so be able to understand why they could not live with their birth family, and why they were adopted.
Why do we need to complete a life story book and later life letter?
So you’re working with a child who is heading towards, or already has a plan of adoption, and your manager is probably starting to discuss the need for you to prepare a life story book and a later life letter.
A good way to understand why you’re being asked to prepare these documents is to understand the legislation. The government’s national minimum standards for adoption (standard two) includes the outcome that children have a positive self-view, emotional resilience and knowledge and understanding of their background, and includes guidelines on the preparation and content of life story books. You can see the guidance here.
There’s also regulation 35 in the statutory guidance on adoption for local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies, voluntary adoption agencies and adoption support agencies which also includes guidance on life story books, how they should be written and who should be involved in putting them together.
Local authority policies
So you now know why you need to prepare a life story book and later life letter, and also the timescales for when they need to be passed over to the adopters. You may now be wondering how to actually prepare them.
Your local authority is highly likely to have their own policy and procedure, and may have a number of “good practice” examples for you to have a look at. Ask your manager for access to these and if you’re not aware of a policy in your local authority, ask your manager about it. There are numerous policies and procedures floating about on various local authority websites, however if you do decide to research these, try and select one from an authority rated as ‘outstanding’ for its Looked After service by Ofsted. As social workers we always try to learn from good practice models, and a service graded as ‘outstanding’ is more likely to have a policy and procedure that is innovative in its approach which may inspire you.
Working with adopters
When it’s time to approach preparing a life story book and a later life letter, it’s important to include the adopters in this process as they will share parental responsibility (PR) for the child alongside the local authority for as long as the child’s Placement Order is legally active. Once an Adoption Order is granted only the adopters will have PR for their child. As adopters will share PR with the local authority until an Adoption Order is granted, it is good practice to work together with them in the best interest of the child.
Whilst it remains your role as the social worker to lead on the development of the book and letter, adopters want their child to have good quality documents, as this will be the main tool they have to hand in exploring the child’s history with them.
Adopters will often dismantle or rearrange books that have been handed over to them by social workers to make them more child-friendly and in line with their child’s level of development and interest. They might also build on them over time.
Remember, at the end of the day you all want what’s best for the child, so have a conversation with the adopters and agree together how best to present them.
You might be interested in listening to this episode of the Creative Life Story Work podcast, that I took part in, alongside adoptive parent and researcher, Tommy Dylan.
And training in writing later life letters is available here, through Blossom Social Care Training.
See more insights on working with care-experienced children and young people here.
About Joanne Stoddart
Joanne Stoddart is a Local Authority Specialist working with both Blue Cabin. She also holds a role in a regional adoption agency. She is an experienced children’s social worker and manager, with almost 25 years’ experience working in local authorities. She has held various roles from children’s social worker to head of service, all within statutory children’s services, with significant direct experience of working with care-experienced children and young people. Joanne has been involved in Blue Cabin’s Creative Life Story Work project over the past three years, and has worked closely and collaboratively with Blue Cabin throughout.
1. Ofsted: National Statistics, Main Findings: Children’s Social Care in England 2022; 7 July 2022
2. GOV.UK: reporting year 2022: CLA in England including adoptions