Jill Seeney is an Independent Social Worker with a specialist interest in therapeutic interventions with children including Life Story Work.
Everyone has a right to know where they came from and who they are. However, for some children in care, their family circumstances means that they may not know key information about their backgrounds and, particularly those who have had traumatic childhoods, may even have blocked it out.
Life Story Work is a therapeutic intervention used with children in care to help them piece together the pieces of the jigsaw and gain an understanding of their childhood, background, a sense of who they are. Jill Seeney, Independent Social Worker who specialises in therapeutic work with children, explains Life Story Work as a “passport to their identity” covering their past, background and family to enable them to feel positive about going into the future, thus boosting their self-esteem.
With a background in psychology, Seeney has now had a career in social work for more than 20 years. She explains that she has always had a passion for working with children, understanding their behaviour and working with them therapeutically to improve their lives. Seeney works in a local authority fostering team three days a week and also works as an Independent Social Worker quality assuring fostering reports, carrying out fostering and connected person assessments, running training courses, working on improving transitions for children and young people being adopted and carrying out Life Story Work with children in care.
Life Story Work happens when the child is ready
The Life Story Work entails sessions with the child where a social worker will use play and creative approaches to enhance the child’s understanding of their background and their own identity. The social worker encourages the child to ‘walk their story’ in a safe and supported way.
A full piece of Life Story Work will go back to the child’s birth and early childhood, covering the reasons why they went into care to where they are now and their hopes and dreams for the future. For this kind of Life Story Work, the child would need to be in a stable placement and ready for the process, says Seeney, although Life Story Work can be done on a number of levels, and smaller pieces of ‘transition’ work focusing on the present and future can be done with a child to help them to prepare for a move.
There is no set time or age where a child will undertake the Life Story Work. It is carried out according to the child’s needs and when the right support is in place. Going through the process can be emotional for the child and so it is imperative that their carers are on board to support the child as they may change their behaviour or experience difficulties at school as a result of going through the process. The professionals involved with the child should agree when the time is right for the child to carry out the Life Story Work but children, of course, have a choice and it would only go ahead if the child wanted to do the work, explains Seeney. When children start to ask questions this can be a good indicator of readiness.
The work is carried out in a number of sessions between a social worker and the child. Some children need more sessions than others depending on their past experiences but naturally, in a climate of cuts, there is pressure on social workers to do the work within a set number of sessions. Seeney concedes that the work is time consuming, especially as the social worker needs to do a lot of research beforehand including getting essential information from birth parents which can prove difficult. At the end of the work, usually a Life Story Book will be produced reflecting the work carried out.
Children have a right to Life Story Work
“Due to the time-constraints on local authority social workers, a lot of Life Story Work is carried out with family support workers or student social workers, I supervise family support workers doing this kind of work,” said Seeney.
However, she says that it is always helpful if the professional carrying out the work has received training in Life Story Work to provide them with awareness particularly around therapeutic communication with children. “You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to carry out this type of work, but training is definitely beneficial.”
The key skill required for undertaking life story work is an ability to communicate effectively with children and young people, in terms of listening to them, and in being able to engage them using play and other creative methods, in a way appropriate to the individual child, explains Seeney. Having an understanding of child development and emotional links to behaviour goes alongside that, with good assessment and investigative skills. An ability to team work (particularly with carers who support the child) is also important.
Despite the time consuming nature of the work and the pressures on local authority social workers, Life Story Work is happening a lot more, says Seeney who says she has seen more emphasis placed on this work since the Eileen Munro review of child protection which highlights the importance of working directly with families and ensuring that looked-after children understand why they are in care. Legislative demands for adopted children to have life story books within a set time frame have also been instrumental. “I don’t know about elsewhere in the country but in the local authority where I work, all looked-after children have a right to Life Story Work. With two colleagues, I have created an e-platform of resources on Life Story Work for social workers to use with children, foster carers and adopters. This will be live in September and provides a list of useful resources and books in this area of work.”
Seeney says there is a “lot of passion” amongst professionals for Life Story Work, adding that she has set up a group on the topic for interested parties to meet up and share information.
However, Seeney is clear that there are times that Life Story Work shouldn’t be carried out. “It is really important that the child wants to do the work and it shouldn’t be done if they don’t want to do it. Sometimes when adoptions have broken down, people have tried to do Life Story Work with the children but it is just too painful for the child. At times, social workers need therapeutic advice from CAMHS professionals.”
“If it ever becomes too much for the child, Life Story Work should be put on hold. This kind of work requires careful thought and planning about how it is done and good supervision,” she adds.
Morris and the Bundle of Worries is a tale of Morris the Mole who finds out that talking about his problems, and facing his worries with the help of others, is more helpful than hiding his fears. It is aimed generally at children with worries but particularly those who are looked after or adopted and was listed number one in a top 10 selection of books that adopted children and teenagers picked as their favourite.
Their life amounted to a CD of files
“Prior to writing this book, I was working with a teenager who was going through a really difficult time. As an ISW you spend a lot of time driving going to see different children and I remember thinking a lot about him and his circumstances. I was coming up with ideas for a book and thought ‘had therapeutic work been done with the teenager when he was younger, he probably wouldn’t have been experiencing the difficulties that he is going through now’.”
A Safe Place for Rufus ensued in 2012 and again the idea was drawn from Seeney’s work. The story reveals how Rufus the cat lives with a family who looks after him, feeds him his favourite foods and gives him lots of cuddles. He feels happy and safe there, but he didn’t always feel this way. The family that Rufus used to live with were not kind to him at all. Thinking about his past makes him angry and sad and Rufus struggles to escape from his memories and find a safe place where he can just relax and be himself. This book also appeared in the Top 10 books as rated by children in care.
In the autumn, Seeney’s third book 'Kai’s Long Journey' will be published, a story drawn from work she carried out with an asylum seeking teenager. Its aim is to positively support young asylum seeking children, while also educating other children about what it is like for those on a long journey.
Seeney is going to be doing some work with Kingston University about the use of stories with children in care. “Children may read the books on their own, they might have them read to them by a professional or carer. Using a story gives the child some distance. They can just listen to the story, or discuss it with their carers/professional afterwards or maybe relate it to their own experiences, whatever they choose to take from it,” adds Seeney.
She plans to write more books aimed at children in care. “There has been a massive expansion in this area over the last five years. When I wrote Morris and the Bundle of Worries in 2007, there were hardly any stories like this around whereas now there are increasing numbers of stories aimed at helping children, many provide useful tools to help looked after children to understand their own experiences and improve their self-esteem.”
Seeney also plans to continue with the Life Story Work. “I spoke to a young person recently and they told me that they were not offered the chance to do Life Story Work and so they were just given a CD of their files – their whole childhood and background amounted to a CD. Life Story Work provides young people with memories and understanding. In many different contexts I have heard children and young people often spontaneously talk about their Life Story Books and explain about their memory boxes, photos, letters and what they mean to them.
“Life Story Work is about understanding your story, it is part of your life and is an ongoing process and while it can be used for other client groups such as older people with Alzheimer’s Disease, it is particularly important for looked-after children who often would not have that information without this type of work,” she concludes.
More about Life Story Work from Coram BAAF
The All Party Parliamentary group on Looked-After Children, which Seeney regularly attends and says is an excellent forum for children in care to get their voices heard.