“Why am I living at Jeanie’s house?” Answering children’s questions when they come into care

Polly Baynes has developed a creative model of life story work that can be used as part of routine social work practice and makes it possible to explain complex situations to very young children. In this feature, she provides an example of this approach.

How can we explain complex situations to children and young people?

Polly Baynes has worked with children and families for 37 years as a residential social worker, local authority social worker, independent chair, children’s guardian and independent social worker.

She has developed a creative model of life story work that can be used as part of routine social work practice and makes it possible to explain complex situations to very young children. Here, Polly shares an example of this approach.

A real life example

A few years ago I went to meet two young children who had been taken into foster care after the police were called out to their home because there was smoke pouring out of the kitchen window.

Their mother, who was very depressed after the birth of their baby sister, had not felt able to get out of bed that morning and the baby’s Dad was at work. Ellie and Mason were resourceful children who had climbed on the worktops to find cereal for breakfast, tried to change the baby’s nappy, opened up a tin of emulsion to make finger paint and finally switched on the grill to try and make some toast, igniting the remains of last night’s dinner.

The children were told that they were staying with Jeanie until the house got cleaned up. Three weeks later, I arrived with a roll of wallpaper and some play people, stickers and pens, hoping to help the children understand where everyone was living now.

Using drawing to answer questions

As soon as I drew Mum and Dad’s house, Ellie put one of the figures lying down in a corner, searching carefully for a baby to put next to her. Mason grabbed the police car and fire engine from my bag, shouting ‘nee naw, nee naw’ and Ellie scribbled all over my drawing to show the flames and messy paint at home. She shouted ‘Mummy wake up’ lots of times and made the Mum doll tell her to get the baby’s bottle.

I added the social worker and the judge to the picture, putting speech bubbles to show that they were worried about the children and asked Jeanie and the baby’s foster carer to look after them for a bit while they worked out how to help the family.

Jeanie sat down next to us and helped us draw her house, the sausages they had for tea and her little dog. Mason drove a toy car along the paper to show their journey to family time and I added a house for their baby sister. When Ellie moved the Mummy doll to Jeanie’s house, I gently put it back and said that Jeanie only looked after little children, other people were helping Mummy and Daddy.

Jeanie gave Ellie a big hug when she saw how cross and sad this made her and we repeated this several times. I drew their family support worker knocking at the door. We talked about how hard Ellie and Mason had tried to look after their sister and how they had not done anything wrong.

An explanation that made sense, delivered in a way they could understand

Ellie and Mason were four and two years old – it was hard for anyone to find the words to explain what was happening, adults worried about getting it wrong or upsetting them. Their parents did not know what to say when they asked to come home in family time and Jeanie had not been given the information she needed to answer their questions (or understand why Ellie cried when she offered her toast). But these children knew their stories – they had lived them.

Using pictures and play allowed them to communicate, ask questions, show their feelings and express their fears. It helped the adults know how and what to tell.

Including Jeannie and sharing what the children had been told with their nursery, their family time worker and their parents allowed the adults around them to develop a shared script and answer their questions.

These children would need a lot more explaining. They might need a whole life story book or therapeutic work. But this short, achievable visit gave them what they needed right now: an explanation that made sense, delivered in a way they could understand.

About Polly Baynes

Polly Baynes has worked with children and families for 37 years as a residential social worker, local authority social worker, independent chair, children’s guardian and independent social worker. She is a Research in Practice Associate and the author of their Practice Guide to Life Story Work. Polly has delivered training, consultation and mentoring in life story work to social workers, foster carers, adopters and kinship carers across the UK.