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Children's Voice Article, May/June 2004

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

We all want to know where we come from. It helps us figure out who we are and where we're going.

For some of us, this journey involves visiting other states, other countries, and even other continents to learn about our heritage. For others, it just means sitting down with family, poring over an old photo album, and asking some simple questions--where our parents first met, what jobs our grandparents held, and what life was like in an age without cell phones, satellite television, and personal computers.

When my mother turned 80, she decided to assemble a family history for my children--not just a family tree with names on a printed page, but a book with pictures, stories, and more. The words and images illuminated what it was like to grow up in the 1920s and '30s, the popular music, life at a university for a young woman in that era, along with some of my mother's innermost thoughts about the joys of her life and the challenges she faced. My children still cherish that book, years after my mother's passing.

But for children who find themselves in the child welfare system, the journey of self-discovery is often a difficult, if not impossible, one to begin. Many have been removed from their families for any of a dozen reasons, and finding that information and making those connections can be much more challenging. In fact, as these children move through the difficult steps of defining themselves and their family, they may be stuck somewhere between understanding their past and embracing their future.

Fortunately, psychiatrist Gilbert Kliman has devised an approach to help foster youth focus on the transition into out-of-home care--a step that is often overlooked. For years, social service workers have used the life history book to help adopted children as they move into new homes, but Kliman has extended this tool to the field of psychiatry, pairing that personal history with an informed understanding of a child's develop-mental needs.

The life history helps children record their journey from their early years with their birthparents--including the joys and sorrows they may have encountered during that time--to their placement in out-of-home care, and beyond. With the help of a therapist, children work through this journal/workbook/coloring book, filling in blanks ranging from their birthfamily's name and address, to drawings and photos of their first home, to favorite books and television shows during that time.

Children can find a simple way to record the best and worst things that ever happened in their birth home, troubles with parents, the events that brought them to foster care, and their emotions along the way. They can draw pictures or include photos of their current school, favorite teachers, foster parents and siblings, things they are afraid of, and even thoughts about visiting their birthfamily. What's more, a therapist can guide them through the emotions and the expectations that come with each discovery.

Kliman's take on the personal life history has already helped many children come to terms with a part of their life they otherwise find too painful to handle. Completing the journal helps children understand that that time is just as important as any other time in their life, and the events contribute to the person they are and the person they will become. It's easing the pain of new placements a bit and putting children in a position to more easily recover from these traumatic events as they grow older. For all of these reasons, CWLA is now working with Kliman to broaden the use of life histories in more areas.

Efforts to help children reclaim their histories aren't meant to compromise life with their adoptive parents, of course, but to complement it. So as we work to put children in the best possible home, whether that involves adoption, temporary foster homes, or returning children to their birthfamilies, the goal is to bridge the gap between their past and their present, so their future is a little brighter.

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