The Gift of a Story
We’ve talked a lot on these pages about how children who grow up in the child welfare system lose many things. One of the most crucial things they can lose is their story. Think of a foster child’s life as a storybook with a beautiful cover. It looks interesting from the outside. You take it off the shelf and start paging through it, but then you discover that several chapters have been ripped out, pages and pages just gone. You get to know a character and suddenly, poof, they’ve disappeared. You try to make sense of the plot, but it’s chaotic and the narrative jumps around. It’s troubling to read a book like that.
These lost stories are the subject of a remarkable TED talk by the British poet and broadcaster Lemn Sissay in which he tells his poignant story of being in foster homes from infancy to adulthood, yet never with a forever family. Click here to watch the video.
As a teenager, he realized that “I knew nobody who had known me for longer than a year.” Sissay didn’t have the reference points that growing up in one intact clan gives a child. As he notes, “The great moments of childhood are recalled through family members. Each member has his or her own version of the same story, with which we may or may not agree. In many ways, family is a collection of disputed memories between one group of people over a lifetime.” But for many children of foster care, their story is, as Sissay says, “an echo that returns to only one.”
We all need a coherent story to make sense of our lives. A resource family that provides a permanent home for a child is creating that child’s future story. Just as important, with creativity, care, sensitivity and persistent digging, the family can fill in the blanks in the child’s past. It gives a child a feeling of belonging and history to know that she looks like her Aunt Tanisha, or loves trains just like Grampa Bill did, or that a full moon was shining down on the night she was born.
Restoring a child’s story is just one of the many precious gifts resource families bestow on children. Sierra Forever Families celebrates resource families every single day of the year, but May is National Foster Care Month–a special time to focus on the work of foster families (not to mention social workers, community organizations, and others who work to improve the lives of young people in care). This country-wide month of recognition came about mostly due to the efforts of an organization called the Children’s Bureau, which for 100 years has worked to assist children and youth in foster care and support foster families, kinship caregivers, child welfare professionals, and others who help these children.
The Children’s Bureau website is a treasure trove of resources and information for anyone whose life is touched by the foster care system: www.childwelfare.gov/fostercaremonth/ What’s more, the site contains loads of information www.childwelfare.gov/topics/adoption/postplacement/lifebooks/ that resource families can use to create “life books”—a terrific tool to help a foster child get back his or her story. #FosterCareMonth
Written by Joyce Miller, LCSW