Joanne Stoddart

What is a foster carer’s role in life story work?

Blue Cabin’s Local Authority Specialist, Joanne Stoddart, discusses the role of foster carers in life story work with care-experienced children and young people.

As a foster carer you may be about to welcome your first child or young person into your home, or you may already be experienced and have supported and nurtured many children over the years. However, you will all have one thing in common: you need to rely on being provided with information about the child you are about to care for, or is already in your care, from their social worker.

Understanding a foster child’s history and experiences

As a foster carer, you are the primary caregiver for the child in your care, and you will need to be a very important trusted adult for that child. Although I have never been a foster carer, over my career I have been involved with many foster carers and have sadly been required to chair disruption meetings when children’s placements have needed to end.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned on the importance of understanding a foster child’s experiences:

1. Information sharing is paramount

I have heard many stories from foster carers over the years about their different accounts of how much information they had been provided with at the outset of a child moving into their home, or during the child’s stay with them. This can often be compounded by the number of social workers a child may experience, meaning their history may become diluted and valuable information may be lost over time.

A social worker who has been involved with a child for a significant period of time will have very rich information and intelligence about a child and their family, whilst a social worker who has only recently become involved has to rely on information contained in records, and a lot of information may not have been captured effectively.

If you do not have a full understanding of a child’s history and experiences, how can you be expected to adapt your parenting style to the child’s individual needs?

2. Foster carers need support too

Foster carers often share how difficult it can be to care for a child who appears to want to reject them and push against boundaries. We all know that the key to success is the ability to form nurturing relationships and attachments between the adult and child. However, foster carers need to be supported in order to build this relationship with the child, and to enable the child to trust in their foster carer’s ability to keep them safe, secure and nurtured in order to allow them to move forward in their lives.

3. The need for understanding and empathy

In understanding why the child in your care presents in the way they do, or reacts in certain ways or in particular scenarios, you need to have a full understanding of the child’s history in order to join the dots and to make sense of the child’s previous and current world, and to understand the world through the child’s eyes.

When a child is struggling with the impact of separation and loss from their birth family, or may be presenting behaviours which are detrimental to their best interests, they need support to understand their past in order to make sense of their present. As a foster carer you will be expected to manage the care of a child in potentially very challenging circumstances.

Listen to our podcast episode on attachment, trauma and their impact on children and young people ->

Why should foster carers be involved in life story work?

Good quality life story work is invaluable in supporting the child to process their emotions and feelings, and also for you as their main caregiver to enable you to understand the source of why the child in your care reacts and responds in the way they do.

Children need to engage with a trusted adult

In engaging children with life story work it is crucial that a child’s trusted adult, usually their foster carer, is involved in the work alongside the child’s social worker. When a child is helped to process their memories and emotions, they are likely to reflect on information shared and the feelings and emotions they are experiencing with their trusted adult – you.

A secure base will help to counter any adverse reaction

Equally, a child may react adversely and need to have a safe person and secure base to be able to express their emotions with, usually their trusted adult – again you. If you as the child’s trusted adult are not involved in life story work, you will be unaware of what is being discussed, how the child is responding, and be unaware of what strategies to put in place in the home to ensure the child feels safe.

Potential limitations to consider

Traditional life story work should include the child in your care, their social worker and you as the child’s foster carer. However, in my experience this does not always happen.

  • Life story work is not always undertaken in a timely fashion, or at all, and may vary in quality and approach.
  • There is no national minimum standard in place for life story work for children in care, only for children being placed for adoption.
  • Experiences of how life story work is approached and facilitated will be different between local authorities and also practitioners.

Using Creative Life Story Work with your child

Blue Cabin has been instrumental in rolling out a different approach to life story work called Creative Life Story Work, based on the Rose Model of Therapeutic Life Story Work. This was rolled out in three local authorities in the North East of England and was funded by What Works Centre for Social Care and evaluated by Ipsos Mori.

Two of the findings of the evaluation included:

  • A better understanding of care experience and identity were most often cited among the benefits to care-experienced children and young people of creative life story work.
  • Of those involved in delivery of creative life story work, there was generally a perception it had improved the relationships between carers and children and young people, and improved well-being and stability of their placements.

You can read the evaluation report here ->

Benefits of Creative Life Story Work for care-experienced children

The evaluation of the Creative Life Story Work model highlighted that a ‘creative, relational approach to life story work has shown it to be higher quality and more collaborative than traditional life story work, and that it helps to develop and strengthen relationships between care experienced children and young people and their carers.’

The evaluation also highlighted what children and young people said about being involved. They talked about ‘significant changes in their lives’ linked to taking part in Creative Life Story Work including:

  • Improved mental health
  • A better understanding of their identity
  • Improved relationships with people in their lives.

The evidence also showed that some children and young people made ‘big life decisions’ such as ‘changing contact arrangements and rethinking career plans’. This was possible with the support from the trusted adults in their lives who participated in these sessions alongside them.

Benefits of Creative Life Story Work for foster carers

When talking about their experience of being involved in the Creative Life Story Work sessions with a child in their care, a carer said: “It did make our relationship stronger. He has now got a very strong attachment with me which we did not have before and so that has been really good. He trusts me and he knows I will keep him safe.”

Getting started with Creative Life Story Work

As a foster carer, the local authority responsible for the child in your care may not be involved with Blue Cabin’s programme. However, this website provides an overview of All About Me, the initial entry point into Creative Life Story Work for children and young people, which can be facilitated by a foster carer with a child.

Get involved and support the child in your care in three easy steps:

  1. Learn about All about Me, the first tier of Creative Life Story Work
  2. Sign up for some of our forthcoming online training, led by experts in life story work
  3. Sign up as an individual member to get access to all our Creative Life Story Work resources.

Take a look at the introduction to All About Me ->

Creative Life Story Work resources

Introduction to All About Me: An overview of the entry point to Creative Life Story Work.

The All About Me direct work toolkit: A step-by-step guide to getting started with All About Me direct work.

Bitesize activities: Activities created by our team of Associate Artists, and designed to help address each of the All About Me themes with children and young people.

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.