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Podcast Season 2: Episode 5 – The Adoption Process, Creativity and Life Story Books

Hear personal and professional perspectives with our podcast guests: Joanne Stoddart, Blue Cabin team member and Panel Manager at Adoption Tees Valley and Tommy Dylan, adoptive parent and Creative Technologist and Researcher at Northumbria University.

What role does life story work play in the adoption process?

Hear personal and professional perspectives with our podcast guests: Joanne Stoddart, Blue Cabin team member and Panel Manager at Adoption Tees Valley and Tommy Dylan, adoptive parent and Creative Technologist and Researcher at Northumbria University.

We discuss life story books, the use of imagery, and how we can improve the information given to children and parents.


Please note that this transcript is auto-generated and therefore will contain some errors and natural pauses in conversation.

[00:00:00] DAWN: Welcome to the Creative Life Story Work podcast, where we explore how a creative approach to life story work can help children and young people who are in care make sense of their past and build a brighter future. A new model for life story work is being rolled out in the North East of England And this podcast shares the latest learning and investigates how it could help improve the lives of care experienced children and young people across the country.

[00:00:34] My name is Dawn Williams and I am an associate at Blue Cabin, one of the partners on this exciting work. Today, we are exploring how life story work is crucial in supporting children and young people and their trusted adults during the process of adoption. I’m absolutely delighted to welcome to our podcast studio, two guests with personal and professional experiences to offer our conversation.

[00:01:02] Joanne Stoddard is panel manager. at Adoption Tees Valley, a regional agency who find families for those children needing adoption. You will have met Joanne in her previous role at Darlington Borough Council as head of service, where Joanne was instrumental in the rollout of creative life story work.

[00:01:25] And we are delighted that Joanne is able to spend a day, a week with us at the moment, uh, at Blue Cabin. And our other guest. Now, Blue Cabin always offer the invitation at the end of every podcast. If you’ve got a conversation you would like to have, give us a ring and we’ll have a cuppa and a chat. And we’re so pleased that our next guest did exactly that.

[00:01:52] Tommy Dillon. is a researcher based in the School of Design at Northumbria University. He’s a digital product designer, creative technologist and researcher, and he is concerned with how digital artefacts can support emotional aspects of well being. by providing meaningful, positive experiences. A huge, warm, Blue Cabin New Year welcome to you both, Joanne and Tommy.

[00:02:22] Welcome this afternoon. Thank you, Dawn.

[00:02:24] TOMMY: Thank you.

[00:02:25] DAWN: Lovely to have you here. And Tommy, definitely welcome. You’re the first guest who’s ever rang us up and said, yeah, I want to chat with you. So you’re really, really welcome. Thank you very much. Um, I wondered, um, Joanne, um, just to set the scene a bit, um, because in previous podcasts, we’ve heard about creative life story work, therapeutic life story work, um, and it, I think some of our listeners would be interested to know Um, what that’s like during the adoption process, is it the same, is it different?

[00:02:59] So could you give us a brief overview of what your role at, what that involves at Adoption Tees Valley?

[00:03:07] JOANNE: Well technically it doesn’t actually involve Adoption Tees Valley because it’s the child social worker who’s responsible for completing a life story book for a child who has a plan for adoption. So it’s very different.

[00:03:21] So Adoption Tees Valley would just be more responsible for, for trying to ensure that that book was available. And when we’re talking about books as opposed to, um, creative life story work or life story work for children with a plan of, for example, long term fostering, it is very different. Um, a book is, is produced, um, varying different, um, qualities, I would say.

[00:03:47] I think that’s probably. A fair comment. Um, and what, what has to be remembered is social workers may not touch adoption at all through their career or may only come across a child with a plan of adoption once in a while. So don’t necessarily learn or the skills that they need to produce a very good quality, um, life story book for, for, for a child, you predominantly a baby.

[00:04:16] Um, but yeah, so it’s very different.

[00:04:18] DAWN: Interesting, right from the get go then, about a very different experience, um, for the social workers, uh, than some of the colleagues that we’ve been working with in the three local authorities who’ve been attending our Life Story Live classrooms, for instance. So very, very different immediately.

[00:04:38] Tommy, um, a similar question to you. Would you like to, I mean, from the School of Design, that seems like quite a huge leap into life story work. And I’m wondering whether you would like to tell us how that has become your area of research.

[00:04:55] TOMMY: So yeah, it all started really through my own experience of the adoption process.

[00:04:59] So during lockdown, we adopted and we went through the process. And, you know, it struck me actually, when I received the book, Our whole process, the adoption process was great. The social workers were great. We felt very supported, but we were actually quite surprised when we received the live storybook. Um, it wasn’t quite of the quality that we had expected.

[00:05:21] Um, and I guess, um, as a designer, I was particularly critical, you know, I understand that people don’t necessarily have the background or the experiences, but as a designer, I was very interested in the way in which had been presented the use of emojis. And I guess that inspired me to look at, you know, how we could start to improve that and how, what role design could play, what role creative practitioners could play in supporting people with making these books better.

[00:05:50] Um, and so that, that, that was kind of underpinned that. And also, you know, it became quite clear through, you know, Through the adoption community, these books were really important for people. Um, they were really passionate about ensuring these books were, could be better and that could support them better.

[00:06:09] Um, and so that led me into this, um, interest in, in life story books. Um, and some of the first things that we did, which, which I can talk about was, um, to talk to other adopters about their experiences of life story books, which really started to highlight. For me, the importance of images and some of the ways in which images in particular could be better used.

[00:06:33] Um, and that’s something we can continue to talk about. Um, so that’s, that’s the journey for me. And this, this is, this is why it’s become an interest. I guess it’s quite a shift because normally I work with a lot of digital technology. Um, so the second part of my interest in improving books is also in thinking about, you know, are there digital tools?

[00:06:54] Um, Are there things that we can design that can better support the people making books? Because we 100 percent understand all the challenges involved. And it’s very difficult to, um, you know, so you, the additional training that’s required, perhaps to think more visually isn’t necessarily there. So we want to think about how we can design tools to support people as much as anything else.

[00:07:17] DAWN: You’re pinpointing there about, um, use of images and the importance of that and, and how that might, um, be better used. Uh, Joanne, with your, um, knowledge of, creative life story work. I’m wondering if that’s, uh, that’s something that’s resonating with you as well in terms of the work that the artists were doing in terms of, um, thinking about the themes for life story work.

[00:07:44] JOANNE: Yeah, I mean, what you’ve said there, Tobi, is really interesting and sadly I think a reflection on, on, um, how Local authorities approach life story books for children with a plan of adoption. I mean, there’s an assumption there that people are trained, um, as to how to present a book. My experience, you aren’t trained in how to present a book.

[00:08:09] You’re looking at, um, the usual practice where you’re looking at somebody else’s book that’s been prepared. And if you’ve picked a decent one, that’s good. Great. But if you picked approval one, you’re not necessarily going to understand the quality that you need to be aiming at. Um, in terms of images that you’re talking about, Tommy, I’m just conscious that a lot of the time, um, the opportunity to, To gather good quality photographs of parents and family members sometimes is missed if it’s not happening right at the beginning, it can be missed as parents, um, as the social workers struggle to, to engage parents as care proceedings are going through, especially when adoptions mentioned parents.

[00:08:54] Do tend to, to disengage for obvious reasons with the social worker. And if the opportunities are missed at an earlier stage to, to try and secure various different images, I know, um, social workers who are trying to just gather photographs from, from different, you know, social media sources, um, and that might very well be the only photograph somebody has of a birth parent is, is a, an image from Facebook, for example.

[00:09:23] Um, And I think just, just in terms of my experience of the quality of some of the life story books, while the information may very well be there, it is exactly as Tommy’s described, it’s not presented well. Just as a reflection, I recently reconnected with a 21 year old young woman who I was a social worker for, Um, very recently and her adoptive parents and I met with them and they brought their life story book that I’d prepared as a social worker over 20 years ago.

[00:10:01] And it was quite fascinating to sit there. So I was quite, quite sort of nervous about looking at it thinking, Oh gosh, what quality was it? And it’s, I don’t think matters have moved on particularly since I did that sort of just over 20 years ago. So you’re looking at. paper books and you’re sandwiching in photographs and typing in narrative.

[00:10:24] And I think, um, the way just coming back to creative life story work, the way that we tipped life story work on its head with, with, um, the creative elements, I think adoption life story books are crying out to be one, professionalized, but to just More creatively presented, but with social workers being supported and being being provided with the opportunity to learn and develop and and just use, you know, the creativity that they will have.

[00:10:57] They just don’t necessarily have the time to do it properly or creatively. So I think I think anything that can support social workers to produce. The correct, the, the, you know, really good quality information for a child is absolutely critical because that book will be with that child through their duration, through into adulthood.

[00:11:20] And it also helps parents like Tommy, um, to support their child when they have to. those questions. And nine times out of 10 adoptive parents continue that original life story book with the next chapter of their life. So it’s really critical that the information is there, that it’s kept well, that it’s a professional looking document as well.

[00:11:42] That child has to be, has to understand that they were very much cared about and that has to be the priority. And unfortunately, some of the quality of books that are provided don’t necessarily. Um, give that message, in my opinion, in my experience, that might not be the same for every local authority. And I’m not specifically talking Darlington here, by the way, I see, I see others from different local authorities as well.

[00:12:07] DAWN: What I’m interested in finding out is what are the things that you’ve been experimenting and playing with and what have you, where have you had success or challenge or where has it worked or where could we be better? pushing things because in my head I’m thinking, Ooh, artist training. Ooh, social worker training.

[00:12:25] Ooh, let’s get them all together. Let’s have a sandpit. Let’s play and see what we could come up with. So, but I don’t want to steal your thunder, Tommy.

[00:12:33] TOMMY: No, it sounds great. I just, I just wanted to kind of build on that as well and see, you know, Obviously part of it’s creativity, but also what we’ve been very interested in is also kind of being a little bit critical as well, because certainly the interviews that we’ve, we’ve, we did some early interviews with adopters.

[00:12:49] We had 11 adopters and we had them talk about their life storybooks and we specifically sort of asked them to be creative. A little bit detailed about kind of the things that were worrying for them or the things that they liked and what was working and trying to think about it visually so to actually kind of draw out some of the images that they felt weren’t working and why alongside the story itself.

[00:13:11] So, um, you know, the use of clip arts is. is, is a challenge actually, and, and often the messages that are conveyed by the clip arts are exaggerated. And this was the thing that came up through some of these interviews, you know, examples of, you know, images that skewed the story that was written, for example.

[00:13:30] So the story was saying one thing. thing, but the image was shown an image that was quite fairytale like, or, you know, for example, it was a mother with a crock pot when actually, you know, it was felt by the adopter that didn’t well represent who they saw as birth mom. So there’s all these really interesting and challenging kind of design decisions that require a kind of critical element of critical thinking, I guess.

[00:13:53] And for example, other things include, you know, talking about birth dad and using an image that’s potentially kind of. could incite shame. And these are things that adopters were talking about. And these are some of the reasons that they felt uncomfortable necessarily using these books. Um, so it’s, it’s almost, you know, it’s creativity, but it’s also kind of being critical and really carefully thinking through what messages are being conveyed by those images and also how, you know, the story relates to those images.

[00:14:21] So how does the, the images support what the story is telling? Um, how can, you know, if you think about it as a design problem in terms of interaction between the parent and, uh, the child or the grown up and the child, um, then how do those images support the conversation as well? You know, especially if you think about, Preschool children, early primary children, the evidence says they use a lot more, they use pictures a lot.

[00:14:49] They read the pictures. The pictures are really important and essential in them understanding the story, and it has a big influence on that. And parents also use those images to create those conversations. So it’s not photos are essential and really important, but it’s also, you know, how can you use some of those kind of illustrations and other sorts of images appropriately?

[00:15:07] Um, and so it’s, it’s almost like, Being a little bit more critical about it and finding ways to help people to understand and read images in the way that, um, can help them do that. And actually, you know, when we’re talking about clip arts, you know, there’s, there’s some quick gains to be made by using kind of databases of stock images, you know, where there’s, there’s slightly higher quality.

[00:15:28] And one of the things we kind of talked about in one of our papers. Uh, and the discussion was this idea of, you know, can we support social workers, people making the books by giving them a database of images that’s kind of a little bit more curated, but higher quality images with some guidance on how they might be used?

[00:15:48] Because a big problem seems to be around. You know feeling that you need to put an image in because you have to fill the page and going on to Google image search And finding some of the first images you find without really kind of homing in and what you’re actually trying to say And it’s um, I think it’s because people are under pressure like you say and it’s it’s time and resources But it feels like you know with some kind of visual guide or simple tools, you know Actually, you can make this process potentially quicker But still have that kind of criticality alongside the creative aspect of this.

[00:16:21] Um, so I think, yeah, it’s critical as much as it is creative, I think. I

[00:16:29] JOANNE: think, Tommy, just talking about sort of the images, the stock images, I think there’s an assumption that, Social workers understand how to access images and how to transfer images onto word documents, for example, and things like that.

[00:16:44] And I, and I think if, if everybody started from that base level, that that’s not their skillset necessarily. And the age range of a lot of social workers, the younger ones coming in might be very comfortable with that, but you still have the more mature social workers who aren’t that comfortable with particularly, and wouldn’t know where to start.

[00:17:06] Um, Um, so I, I do think any support at all would be welcomed by social workers who are preparing, um, life story books in, in any shape or form. Um, but, but you’re right, we don’t as local authorities, we, we, we don’t have, um, like design teams behind us supporting you, you’re very much left, left on your own to, to develop things.

[00:17:30] It’s the same with like PowerPoint presentations. Um, they’re only as good as what you can find, um, that you can access, like you say, on Google search. Um, so it is interesting, isn’t it, that there’s this assumption potentially from, from adopters. possibly to think that they should be better quality when actually you, you haven’t got the, the resources there to support the quality that you would want to be producing.

[00:17:55] So, so genuinely, if, if there was to be a stock image, particularly aimed at creating life story books, I genuinely know people would be absolutely welcoming that, however that was to happen.

[00:18:10] DAWN: Do you think having those stock images. Or is it also about the narrative arc and how you’re using those images in order to tell the story?

[00:18:22] I’m just thinking about the blocks that you put in. What order do you do that? Because again, I mean, Are those sorts of skills taught to social workers in, in their training? So not just it, because the two have to go together, don’t they? To tell, to tell the whole story.

[00:18:38] JOANNE: I mean, in, in terms of the desk research that I’ve done, and as you know, Dawn, that was across all the local authorities.

[00:18:44] I don’t know if you’re aware, Tommy, but it was all local authorities across England, so 152 local authorities researched all of the officers. And we did a freedom of information request as well. Got a lot of rich information there. Um, and a lot of the guidance that we received as part of the FOI responses, we got about 75 responses out of 152.

[00:19:08] A lot of them are just saying what needs to be in a life story book. It’s not sort of necessarily supporting you how to write it. It’s just what you need to include. Um, And I think that the whole area of adoption, um, life story books is, is ripe for development. Um, it, it, it does need to improve in, in my view, it does need to improve because it’s one of the most valuable, um, documents that a child and adoptive parents are ever going to receive.

[00:19:37] Um, because it’s supposed to be that tool to support that child to, to, to understand and how, how did they end up here? What happened? You know, and, and build on that. It’s supposed to be that, that stepping stone. The flip side to that as well is you, you, you should have a later in life letter for the adopted child.

[00:19:58] Um, and again, that’s something that’s not necessarily taught to, to social workers. Again, that’s something that, you know, you would be looking at other peoples who’ve prepared them. And again, it goes back to that, it’s only as good as the one that you’re looking at, so hopefully people are sharing good practice ones.

[00:20:16] Um, but again, you know, however, this conversation is about life storybooks, but the later life letter is also a factor in a life storybook as well. It should come part and parcel. So I think that that conversation needs to extend to later life letters as well for that child as a young adult to be able to understand in more age appropriate language.

[00:20:38] Did

[00:20:40] Will: you know that this show is? is available to listen to on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Audible, and many other platforms. Search Creative Life Story Work wherever you get your podcasts.

[00:20:58] DAWN: Tommy, after you’ve had your conversations with other adoptive parents as part of your research process, what are, what are your thoughts? What are the next steps that you, or what, is that complete now? Have you finished that piece of work or are there other questions that you would like to do a bit more of a deep dive into or a bit more work?

[00:21:20] She says she’s using the technical terms like I know what they mean.

[00:21:25] TOMMY: I mean, there’s just, wow, there’s so many questions and there’s so much, you know, depth to this. Actually, I just gradually found live storybooks more and more fascinating because they’re such a challenge. Um, you know, when you speak to the adopters, there’s all kinds of Um, principles and philosophies associated with how they want the book to be, you know, around truth and fact and all these different elements you have to consider that are reflected in the use of images, you know, again, coming back to the clip art.

[00:21:54] It’s like some of this is quick games. It’s like, don’t use an image of a judge. That’s a clip art with these big hammer and he’s looking a little bit angry. Try and use a photograph off. Um, a real judge or the real judge, you know, it’s this was important for adopters because it kind of relates to fact and truth.

[00:22:11] So there’s all these really interesting kind of from a design research perspective, all these interesting principles have to be considered in terms of how you’re creating this book in terms of. The research process, um, there’s, there’s so much depth in the interviews that we did that we’re kind of pulling out different chunks of it.

[00:22:30] So initially we looked at photographs because people talked a lot about photographs, um, you know, in terms of templates, like you talked a little bit about templates and existing resources. And what I found is often, um, there’s, there’s no images in them. You know, even for example, Joy Rees, the very light outlines of where there might be an image.

[00:22:53] But actually, there’s a lot of detail and consideration in those images that would help people understand how you might use them argumentation there, where if we can show people more how you do it better, then does that help them? You know, kind of implement what they can from that, like what you talked about, rather than using sort of the same sort of template over and over again.

[00:23:15] So there’s, there’s, there’s a lot there around the potential of kind of simple visual guides to support people. Um, visual argumentation that kind of convinces you of the value of images, which is. It’s quite hard to understand unless that’s your background. You know, you do read images, the messages, especially for children are very important to them.

[00:23:33] Um, in relation to photos, you know, again, we, photos are obviously really, really important, but in terms of research, there’s quite a lot of. Kind of detail around what individual images are actually showing. It’s not just saying here’s a bunch of photographs when you actually kind of hear about how adopters have seen how their children have responded to them.

[00:23:55] Then, you know, there’s, there’s photos that show emotions of the child, which are actually quite complex. So including images where they’re not necessarily happening. happy, sorry, seem to kind of encourage a lot of conversation. It’s useful as a tool for the adopter because they can talk about what those emotions were at that point in that journey for the child.

[00:24:15] You know, you’re being kind of honest about some of these emotions. And these are things that adopters, you know, talked about. Um, obviously the importance of, um, photos of birth family. Um, in conveying love and seeing some of that early on in that journey, you know, where that’s possible. And, um, you know, other examples include, for example, um, you know, photos, the one adopter, adopter talked about a photo with birth dad.

[00:24:47] So the birth child and birth dad, and they both had the same football top on and the importance of this because they were able to go to the same football match. So these kinds of photos. kind of pervade everyday life in some way and they create opportunities for communicative openness and these experiences for the children.

[00:25:02] So, you know, in terms of research, it’s not just photos, it’s can we actually look more closely at the photos and understand what’s in them and what the meaning of them is. And obviously there’s all these challenges around, you know, actually having the right kinds of photographs isn’t, isn’t always possible where there are a lot of photographs.

[00:25:20] photographs, for example, it’s, it’s kind of being a little bit critical about how you choose them, which ones are most important. So there’s so many opportunities for research around, you know, how can we create the best possible life story books start from there, I guess. And then, and then I liked the idea of working back and saying, okay, How can we then support people with some of that, which aspects are most important and how can we create tools to, to support that, um, rather as kind of holding back, um, and saying we don’t have the resources, you know, these are really important books.

[00:25:55] what qualities do we want from them and kind of starting that conversation and going into more detail about how that can be achieved. Um, so that there’s, there’s, there’s so much detail that we’re kind of working through it stage by stage. We’re actually looking for, I’m looking for further funding at the moment to be able to work more closely with, um, social workers.

[00:26:18] adoptive families, um, hopefully adoptive, uh, adult adoptees, um, to bring people together to have more conversations about how we can make these books better, drawing on everybody else’s experience, um, in order for us to then engage in a kind of design process. So to bring all that together and start to create example books and then also kind of annotate, um, some examples of things we’ve created based on what other people have talked about so we can further that conversation.

[00:26:46] So it’s. It’s kind of for us all about generating stuff, designing, making things, images, illustrations, examples, getting feedback from that and then trying to develop that. And then the big second part is, which is a massive challenge, which is also very fascinating, is how can we support people with that and how can we.

[00:27:05] You know, again, coming back to that, it’s creativity, but it’s also being critical and how you read images and some of that might just be advanced templates. You know, there’s there’s so much opportunity digitally and thinking about how we can move beyond using PowerPoint and replicating other PowerPoints towards.

[00:27:22] slightly more advanced templates, you know, that, um, for example, um, it’s easy to use software online, things like Canva. So can we build on those kinds of principles, um, whilst still providing some guidance around the choice of images? Um, so there’s, there’s massive potential, really.

[00:27:45] DAWN: Huge potential, huge potential.

[00:27:49] Um, Joanne, from all of the, um, uh, that ambition that, uh, Tommy has just described, are there things there that you’re, that are leaping out at you in your role at, well, not your role, but for adoption to use value thinking, Oh, We could be part of that. I

[00:28:08] JOANNE: think all

[00:28:08] DAWN: of

[00:28:08] JOANNE: it to be fair. All of it. I think it’s an area that’s that’s pretty much just been left alone for such a long time.

[00:28:19] Um, and I think the louder adopters Sort of shout like yourself Tommy about the quality of the information that’s coming to you and your family the better really But I think all of it. I think you know any any support that can be offered to social workers to support them to in their pursuit to to produce good quality, outstanding quality books for the benefit of the child, um, and their family, their adoptive family is, I just think would be welcomed.

[00:28:56] So I think, I think everything that you’re talking about there, Tommy, is absolutely fascinating. Um, However, however it happens, it is fascinating and I think anybody who’s involved with adoption in any shape or form would be interested in hearing more about that, genuinely.

[00:29:15] DAWN: Thank you very much. Joanne and Tommy, what an amazing conversation.

[00:29:20] We could talk all afternoon and maybe we’ll set up another podcast, Tommy, when you’ve done, uh, Hopefully been successful in your funding and done a bit more work and we can come back, reconvene and, uh, and tell the tale of, uh, of the next steps of your research project and your design process. Absolutely fascinating.

[00:29:43] Thank you very much, both of you, for your time this afternoon, um, and for sharing such valuable insights. Thank you very much.

[00:29:52] TOMMY: Dawn.

[00:29:52] DAWN: Thanks, Dawn.

[00:29:58] Whether you’re a foster carer, someone who has experience of the care system, Or you work with children and young people. We hope this episode has given you an insight into how we could make life story work better for young people. You can find out more about our show at wearebluecabin. com forward slash podcast.

[00:30:19] And we’d really love to hear your thoughts. You can record and send a direct question or message to the show via the website, or you can tweet us at wearebluecabin. If you’d like to listen to future episodes, remember to subscribe wherever it is you usually get your podcasts. And if you are using Apple Podcasts, please do leave us a review, as it really helps others to find our show.

[00:30:45] Bye for now.

[00:30:49] Will: The theme music on this show is by Madderfan, sourced from Pixabay and used under license. You’ve been listening to an Anya Media production for Blue Cabin. Find out more at anyamedia. net forward slash podcasts.

Produced and mixed by Will Sadler of Anya Media. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts by clicking one of the following links:

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