’Lifebooks’ help kids in foster care track their history | WBEZ
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'Lifebooks' help kids in foster care track their history

Lacy is eight years old, though that’s not her real name. Lacy’s adoptive mom, Rebecca McClintock, asked us to disguise her daughter’s identity because we’re going to be talking about her past, and a lot of it is painful.

Lacy came to live with McClintock as a foster child about a year and a half ago. McClintock said she got a call from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services in the middle of the afternoon.

“She’s been in a foster home that wasn’t working out and they needed to pull her from there quickly. And three hours later she was on my doorstep with her little tiny Winnie the Pooh suitcase and a caseworker and a piece of pizza,” McClintock remembers.

McClintock’s flat in La Grange, Ill., was Lacy’s fourth home in just six years.

“She remembered the last home, but not anything before that. And so she defined herself by that family and their treatment of her, and came in a lot talking about how nobody could love her and she wasn’t worth anything and they should just throw her in the trash because nobody really needed her,” McClintock says.

When I visited McClintock and Lacy at home last month, I tried to ask Lacy about that family, but she burst out crying and ran to hide under the covers of her mom’s bed.

McClintock said Lacy’s foster parents were abusive, and she has bad memories. And those can be really hard to talk about, especially for a little kid. One thing that’s helped Lacy open up, and helped Lacy and McClintock grow closer, is something called a Lifebook.

One of the more popular versions of the Lifebook is published by Lutheran Social Services of Illinois - or LSSI.

Ruth Jajko is in charge of child welfare in Cook County for LSSI. I visited her at her office in Des Plaines, Ill., and she showed me an example of the book they use with the thousands of kids they work with in Illinois.

The binder she showed me looked a lot like a baby book. It’s a collection of pictures, mementos and memories--the sorts of things that people who grew up with their birth parents might find tucked away in a box in the closet, or hear about from their mom or dad around the dinner table. 

Lifebooks are a place to collect bits of history like that, but there’s another purpose: The books are designed  to give kids a way to talk about the trauma they’ve been through. Like, at the top of one page is this prompt:  “Why I don’t live with my birth parents anymore.”

Below that is a heartbreaking list of options for the child to select.

“It feels stark, right? [But] this page if you notice doesn’t come at the beginning, there’s been a lot of moving up to it,” Jajko says.

About six months after Lacy came to live with McClintock, the two of them started working on a Lifebook with a woman from LSSI. McClintock says she was like a “great detective.”

“She brought us letters from the first two foster homes, and the letters talked about how she as a little tiny baby would always scooch and put her head in the corner of the crib and she would sleep in the corner of the crib.”

McClintock says those little details meant the world to Lacy.

“I didn’t hear anymore that nobody loved her, because she had proof that people did when she was just a few days old,” McClintock says.

And It’s real, intimate details like that that get lost for foster kids, especially ones like Lacy who are bounced around a lot.

“One of the things that’s true about the system in Illinois is that we have a low rate of removal, meaning we don’t bring that many kids into care.… But once we get kids into foster care we don’t do a very good job as a state of getting them into permanency quickly, so kids tend to languish in the system too long in Illinois,” Jajko says. “So that means they have an extended period of time when they’re in this kind of limbo status. “

That's a critical, ongoing issue for the state, and no one's pretending lifebooks will solve that problem. But Jajko says the books can help kids grow up whole despite the turmoil.

And recently, Rachael Kerrick with DCFS said the department is spending about $450,000 to buy a Lifebook for every kid in the foster care system.

Kerrick said the Lifebook has long been a part of best practices for the agency, but they are re-emphasizing its importance and value to the workers in the field.

And this is the first time the department has spent the money to buy a uniform book for every kid.

When I told Jeanne Howard about the department’s plan, she said she said “Hallelujah.”

Howard used to run the Center for Adoption Studies at Illinois State University. She says the only way for a child not to be haunted by her past is to confront it, and the Lifebook helps kids do just that.

“Children who’ve experienced trauma re-live it every day. Every minute of every day,” she says.

And Howard says children are natural storytellers.

“So when we don’t give a kid  information, they turn it into a story. And usually that story is about themselves. It’s about I was such a bad baby and I cried so much that my mommy hit me and I had to be taken away,” Howard explains.

Lacy’s adoption became official in February, and McClintock says she’s starting to trust that this is her permanent home. The two of them are forming a family together. And it’s being built on a foundation with a little more knowledge of Lacy’s early years.

For most people, birth parents are the keepers of their stories. Jeanne Howard says when the state takes over as a child’s guardian, one of its fundamental responsibilities is to be a keeper of that child’s story. To save it for them until they are ready to confront it, and explain it to them in a way that helps them grow and prosper.

Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.

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