Clarissa Minge never had a box of photos, a stack of report cards or even a family tree. After 13 moves around the country, 12 of which took place between the time she was 9 and 14 years old, she didn’t know where her brothers or sisters were or what her father was like. After Clarissa landed in the child welfare system, she wasn’t sure how she would be able to compile her past. But when her legal guardian, Barb McKay, brought home a Lifebook, all of the pieces started to come together.
"It asked me a lot of questions that gave me more of a reason to get answers," says Clarissa, 17, who has since contacted her brothers and her father’s family. Although her father died when Clarissa was 2, she was able to compile information about him with the help of his family.
Similar to a scrapbook, Lifebooks are personal compilations of photos, awards, maps, timelines and other documents for children in the child welfare system. The books ask the children questions like "Why do you believe you’re no longer with your biological family?" and "What activities do you like to do the most?" For children who frequently move, the Lifebooks serve as keepers of their histories and connections to their past. Furthermore, they are therapeutic tools.
"Children placed in the welfare system have experienced a lot of loss," says Monica Johnson, the statewide coordinator of the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois’s Post-Adoption Training and Services in Rock Island. "They often lose everything they know and they experience loss and trauma. Lifebooks are a tool to help children come to an understanding of their loss."
The Lifebooks don’t only assist the children in the foster care system; they can also help foster, adoptive and biological parents. "It helps us get to know the child and find out these little things, like what makes a child mad," says Nellie Goderis, a foster parent for more than 15 years who helped create Lifebooks for each of the children she cares for. "It can also help the birth parents understand the child better and the issues that concern them … It also helps the foster and biological parents work together."
Although Lifebooks have been around for decades, many aren’t created because people don’t know about the books, misunderstand how to create them or don’t realize their benefits. To spearhead change, Johnson and LSSI collaborated with Jeanne Howard of the Center for Adoption Studies at Illinois State University and the Rural Documentary Collection at ISU to create a Lifebook training DVD that raises awareness about Lifebooks and assists family service employees.
Funding is also being secured for kits so that every child in statewide care can create a Lifebook, which Johnson considers essential. According to Clarissa, that’s definitely a good thing because "The past is just as important as the future."
For more information about the Lifebook project, visit www.adoptionillinois.org.