This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.
The records Arnisia Coleman has of her childhood are mostly court documents. Judges’ orders on foster care placements dating back to when she was three years old. Social worker reports. Minutes and motions from court hearings.
Hardly any photos were taken of Coleman at the Minnesota foster homes where she was placed—including a household where she lived for a decade.
Coleman, 20, of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, craves details that remain elusive about her heritage, extended family, medical history, and photos of her classmates and favorite pets.
“We need this,” she said of foster children like herself who lack personal archives. “This would’ve helped me a long time ago.”
All too often, if foster youth like Coleman have records at all, they detail allegations of parental abuse and neglect, traumatic encounters with child protective services, and the court hearings that dictated their lives. There are typically few mementos of those who loved them and the places they visited as children, just for fun.
Those overlooked but vital details of life are the focus of Power of Story, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit working to preserve the personal histories of young people who have experienced out-of-home care. Staff members at the organization work with kids, their therapists, and county workers to compile photos, childhood memories, insights from family members, medical information, and lists of places they’ve lived and schools they’ve attended.
The final product is called a lifebook.
The books piece together fragmented memories of children’s pasts, and are given to each child to keep in a three-ring binder so the archiving can continue. An electronic version is also kept with the child’s county.
“The little quirks of family life don’t make it in a court report, but what matters to us as humans is that we had a whole life before care and during care,” said Alisa Matheson, Power of Story’s executive director.
Matheson, 42, founded Power of Story last year after working for UMOJA MN, a summer camp for families raising Black children through adoption, foster care, or kinship care. In addition to creating the lifebooks, Power of Story offers workshops to child protection workers and foster and adoptive parents about how to sensitively preserve the stories of children in their care.
Coleman, a certified nursing assistant, has experienced the power of seeing images of herself that she never knew existed. She was a teenager when she first saw baby pictures of herself. At the time, she was temporarily reunited with her mother, who struggled with parenthood due to chemical dependency issues. The tender images with her mother reminded her of their deep and early bond.
When Coleman saw the photos, she was immediately struck: “I was a cute baby!”
She also saw pictures of her younger brother as an infant. The two had been separated by the foster care system.
Coleman, who has a German shepherd mix and a labrador golden retriever, also discovered that the depth of her love for dogs dated back to birth: Early family photos show Coleman as a baby with a pitbull by her side.
When she saw that image, something clicked. She thought to herself: “Oh wow, it’s always been that way.”
She now plans to put together her own lifebook to record this collection of images.
The power of personal narratives
Research shows the power of documenting a child’s life story—and the hazards of untold and unknown childhoods. A 2010 study by psychology researchers at Emory University found that adolescents who report knowing more stories about their familial past show higher levels of emotional well-being and self-esteem. They also exhibit lower levels of behavior problems such as withdrawal and aggression than those detached from their pasts.
Researchers at the University of Bristol interviewed kids who created “life storybooks,” a widely used intervention in direct social work practice in England that is required by law for children in foster care who are moving toward adoption. Their 2015 findings concluded that storybooks as a form of narrative contributed positively to the development of the childrens’ identities. The children were “consistently clear that the narrative presented in their book” represents multiple people in their lives, and included their birth families.
“They welcomed the honesty conveyed in their book and this was seen as part of their ability to come to terms with the loss of their birth family and comprehend their adoptive identity,” the report authors found.
In conclusion, they wrote: “All humans have a right to know their story and to understand who they are and the books are hugely valued by children.”
In the United States, different projects across the country work to ensure that foster youth and adoptees know their history. In Ohio, lifebooks are required for all children in foster care. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois publishes lifebooks in a fill-in-the-blank format for kids to complete. Pages like “Why I Don’t Live With My Mother or Father” offer the opportunity for children to explore questions and reasons why they are in foster care.
These forms of memoir help young people understand their story, said Power of Story founder Matheson, who has completed more than 30 lifebooks as a foster parent.
“The best way I can explain it is being grounded—knowing who you are, knowing where you come from—so that you can launch from a place of identity instead of launching from a place of confusion,” she said.
A ‘greater sense of wholeness’
For people of color who find themselves in white homes, lifebooks can help explore cultural, ethnic, or racial identities that have been overlooked.
In Minnesota, American Indian children are 16 times more likely to be placed in foster care than white children. Black children are twice as likely to be removed from their homes than white children, and mixed-race kids are about seven times more likely to be removed.
That often leaves them far from their kin and communities, in households that may not look like them, speak their language, or share their culture. In those environments, children can lose important connections to their heritage or struggle with their identities.
Elliot Odendahl, 37, was in her late 20s when she began documenting her own story. Adopted as an infant, Odendahl, a therapist living in Bloomington, Minnesota, wrote to the state requesting access to her personal information. While much of the information she received was redacted, there were some gems including nurses’ notes documenting the first few days of her life.
“I got to see how many times my birth mom requested to see me in those days that we were both in the hospital together,” Odendahl said.
Those pieces of information, Odendahl said, showed her, “Oh yeah, she did care for me. She was trying to care for me in the best way that she could during that time.”
She didn’t have every detail of her infancy, “but even just that little bit was super helpful in just me feeling a little bit more grounded, just a little bit more—as odd as it might sound—myself.”
Odendahl was adopted by a multiracial family that matched her birth family’s background. But in her therapeutic practice, she prompts clients who haven’t been immersed in their culture and heritage to explore those aspects of their identities.
Pages in lifebooks titled “Heritage Mashup” guide kids to think about the different pieces they inherited from their biological, foster, or adoptive families.
“There’s all these different pieces to you that are all OK,” Odendahl tells them. “Some of them might be different, but they’re all good. They’re all the things that make you you.”
Expanding the reach of lifebooks
Power of Story signed a contract in July that allows it to begin offering services to youth in Minnesota. Child protection workers across the state can now refer young people to the organization, where they have the opportunity to work with a “story specialist” who will curate their lifebook. Individual counties pay for the cost of lifebooks for children in their foster care system.
The specialists have all completed a background check, have a minimum of a two-year degree, and prior experience in the field of adoption, foster care, trauma therapy, or narrative therapy. They have reviewed research in the areas of life history and related fields and have received specialized training in completing life history work with young people, the organization states.
Specialists will have an initial meeting with the children to show them a sample lifebook. Next, they will discuss the child’s life: What is their understanding of their history? What are they curious about? Given that the nature of the children’s pasts can be traumatic, they also ask: What would they rather not know quite yet?
Then, the story specialists will begin their detective work. They’ll connect with birth parents, foster and adoptive families, social workers, court-appointed guardians, doctors, and therapists, inviting them to share what they know about the young person. The specialists will ask for stories, photos, and key pieces of historic information about a child.
Once the book is compiled into the binder, Power of Story staff will meet again with the child to walk them through the book and discuss the information they found and the questions they could not answer.
Matheson said the children are owed these narrative archives.
“Young people deserve to have their story and deserve to have access to their information,” she said.
While lifebooks are not required in Minnesota, they are considered a best practice. Still, with child welfare workers managing heavy caseloads and an accumulation of urgent issues, tracking life histories is far from a priority.
One child welfare worker who attended a Power of Story workshop expressed regret that recording children’s life stories isn’t emphasized more.
“In my eight years working in child welfare within multiple states and counties, I was never given this information,” the worker wrote in their review of the workshop, “and now I am feeling so heartbroken for the youth that I worked with that they are missing such crucial pieces of their own life history because of my lack of knowledge on the subject.”