Books that open the door to a life

EDITOR’S NOTE: Names of the children described have been changed to protect their identities.

Imagine growing up knowing just bits and pieces of your past. You have only vague memories of the time you spent with your family before you were sent to the first foster home. Your older brother and sisters went to Mrs. Clark’s, too, but there were no adults who could explain what happened. Nobody talked about it.

You can’t just pad down the hall, find your mom and say, “Did I really do that?” You don’t live with your mom anymore. You don’t know where she is. You don’t even call her “mom” when you talk about her. Margie. You call her Margie.

As shadows of uncomfortable memories pop into your mind, you wonder, Did I really do that? Am I stupid? Is there something wrong with me? You can’t remember doing it but when your older brother wants to finish off an argument — have the last word, seal his big-guy superiority — he reminds you once again. You drank bleach. Dumb enough to drink bleach. It shuts you up every time. You can’t remember doing it — what it tasted like, whether it burned your lips, nothing. But if your big brother says it, it must be so.

You are left to wonder. To fill in the blanks with your imagination, your common sense, whatever you have. Whatever you have left.

But then, when you are 14 years old, some people come along and put pictures, letters, reports and words together. About you. They look through files. They read everything. They make phone calls. They find a few snapshots, a newspaper article. A birth certificate. They work the puzzle of your life, these two ladies. They find some missing pieces. They fill in the blanks. And they’re pretty nice, too. They are interested, for some reason, in you.

Annette Hill is a woman on a mission. She plucks me from the waiting room at the Arizona Children’s Association’s Phoenix office on a sweltering day in July. AzCA’s foster care recruiter and Life Books coordinator is tall and wiry, with layered blonde hair and an energy that belies the heat of the day. Two men are trying to fit a new sofa through an archway near the office where she’d planned to talk to me, blocking the door. She shifts gears like a pro and leads me upstairs to the Life Books workroom.

Two or three long tables fill the room. Above a desk with black file drawers are color copies of photographs of children tacked on strips of cork. Expandable files bulge with the kind of scrap booking papers and lettering that you’d find on an aisle at Michael’s, the crafter’s mecca. Around the corner, in a long, narrow room, floor-to-ceiling shelves are stuffed with supplies. Neatly labeled plastic tubs and boxes hold scissors, stickers, markers, glue and fancy hole punchers. Die cuts, stencils, card stock, paper patch. Rainbow-colored papers with pictures and themes like Graduation, Birthday, First Tooth, My Pets. Vellum translucents, embossing tools and stamp pads are sorted and waiting.

Arizona Children’s Association began as an orphanage in 1912. It now claims to be Arizona’s largest non-profit child welfare and behavioral health organization. According to the association’s annual report for 2000-2001, the state of Arizona ranks 45th out of 50 for overall child and family well being. [Update: By 2006, the organization was reporting that KidsCount Arizona ranked our state 41st out of 50 states.] It is this group’s mission to do something about that. AzCA offers services like adoption, foster care, parenting skills development and residential psychiatric treatment. The Life Books program is one such service.

The concept for Life Books started in the 1960s, when a social worker in California tried to lessen the sting when parental rights to a child were severed. Children being placed for adoption were given a project to do, a sort of report on their personal history. Each child would draw pictures and write down memories of the life they were leaving behind. Along with any available photographs, it was all compiled into an album.

These days, assembling a scrapbook is not just pasting sentimental memorabilia into a thick album. With the recent explosion of “scrapping,” as crafters call it, a wealth of gadgets and products are available to frame pictures, create themes and generally turn a scrapbook into a glossy, Technicolor extravaganza. The program at AzCA has been in operation for about six years and has reaped the benefit of this growth in the popularity of scrapping as a hobby. Life Books are created with all of the materials and intricate tools imaginable. The finished products are slick and glorious and make my high-school scrapbook, with its yellowing tape and haphazardly placed movie ticket stubs, seem ridiculously outdated.

The lives these books record, however, are anything but neatly packaged, and nowhere close to organized. Or polished and glossy, for that matter. Children entering the child welfare system have witnessed tragedy in their young lives and, as Hill says, are often removed from their homes despite the fact that they themselves have done nothing wrong. They bounce around from placement to placement. Within this jumbled life, the milestones of a childhood often are misplaced and forgotten. Memories blur. Extended family contacts sometimes are overlooked in the confusion, or disappear altogether. So the scrapbooks, and the entire Life Book process, become important therapeutic tools for foster children.

The volunteers Hill recruits are fingerprinted and complete a lengthy application. She conducts in-depth interviews with prospective volunteers, exploring their own life stories. Volunteers gain access to Child Protective Services files when they are assigned a child. They read information that is highly emotionally charged. Hill’s extensive, lengthy interviews are designed to assure her that volunteers will be able to cope with the disturbing material they encounter. It is critical for Hill to know if potential volunteers have unresolved issues in their own lives so she can avoid placing them with children who have had similar traumatic experiences. She has as fierce an interest in protecting her volunteers as she does in making a successful child-volunteer match.

Volunteers are assigned to work in pairs for their first Life Book experience. Hill has trained retired couples, engaged couples, friends and some mom/daughter and dad/daughter combinations. Having a man in the mix is helpful because many of these children have never had a healthy relationship with an adult male. Hill has trained volunteers from all kinds of economic and social backgrounds. Many volunteers have extensive scrapping experience but most do not. If a parent wants to work on a scrapbook with a teenager, Hill modifies the project so the teen spends time hanging out with the foster child and working on the scrapbook while the parent goes through the CPS files and writes the narrative.

The narrative is the first step and perhaps the most difficult. Volunteers sift through every report in the files at the CPS office. They comb through records and make notes. They use this information to write a first draft of the child’s history. Hill encourages them to write exactly what they find, with no sugar coating. Writing in stark, angry terms is actually therapeutic for the volunteers as they wade through the child’s history. Hill wants volunteers to say what they need to say, to get it out in the open. Then Hill rewrites it, putting it in appropriate terms for the child to read.

“They may write, ‘your father was a mean drunk…’ and then, when I rewrite the child’s narrative, it will become, ‘Your father was an alcoholic who had trouble managing his anger,’” Hill says. She includes definitions of terms like “bi-polar” or “schizophrenic.”

Sometimes, volunteers find that the child’s parents also have a history of being in the system. “Maybe we find that, for example, a child’s mom was kicked out and was on the street from age 13 herself,” Hill says. “Sometimes these kids don’t even know the full names of their parents. They don’t know who their dads or their siblings are.”

At the end of the process, Hill provides the narrative and all of the notes that were used to create the story to the child’s caseworker. The notes serve as a guide for the caseworker to help distinguish each child.

Kimberlee Barr has been a CPS caseworker for about two years. She has recommended a Life Book for almost every child she is assigned.

“A lack of time and the need to deal with immediate, major issues for each child prevents a thorough exploration of any child’s history by caseworkers,” Barr says. Caseworker turnover is rampant. New caseworkers receive the most recent, top-of-the-pile information. Multiple file drawers with pages of history on a child’s life are overwhelming, and often too time consuming for caseworkers to approach.

Penny Hruska and Marilyn Larrain are volunteers who have created three Life Books. Recent retirees from Chicago, they rekindled a friendship when they made the initial six-month commitment to produce a Life Book. They were assigned a young teenage girl. One day, as they sifted through four file drawers in the conference room at CPS, they struck gold.

A line of text leaped from the page. It was something this child, then 3, had told an intake worker about what had happened to her. One short line about what a man had done to her in a bathroom. The child had buried the experience deep within her memory and somehow it had gotten lost as she moved from foster home to foster home, from one case worker to another.

While Hruska and Larrain were working on her Life Book, some innocent adolescent teasing caused the girl’s memory to surface. It was more than she could bear. She began exhibiting behaviors involving personal hygiene that made her extremely difficult to parent. The information Larrain and Hruska found shed light on what had happened in her life. Their sleuthing led to a shift in therapy strategy and, ultimately, a change in her behavior.

Once the narrative is complete, Life Book volunteers meet with the child and do an initial interview. The child is given a camera and film to record their lives at present. This pocket of time is important, Hill says.

“We have them take pictures of school friends, pets and the here and now. Volunteers then can hang out and get to know the child and establish a closeness, which paves the way for more personal questions. For example, they might ask, ‘When you lived with the Smiths, what was your favorite meal? When did you learn to ride a bike? When did you lose your first tooth? Who was your favorite teacher?’ When (volunteers) write the narrative, they can sprinkle in many of the good things and milestones to balance (it). They call past foster placements and talk to them about the child. They may even go around and take pictures of every house the child lived in. Volunteers are encouraged to treat a kid like a celebrity. Volunteers are the pals, established as the good guys.”

Volunteers also make a list of contacts they find in the files. Extended family members, friends, former caseworkers and therapists are contacted for any information they may have. Kaye McCarthy, a court-appointed special advocate, retired attorney and Life Books volunteer, tracked down a grandmother no one else knew about. The grandmother helped McCarthy construct a family tree going back several generations. She also had photographs of the child as a newborn: a beautiful baby wrapped in a pink thermal blanket. McCarthy can’t wait to see the face of this child when she sees herself as a baby for the very first time.

Lately, Larrain and Hruska have been working on a love story. They are in the final stages of assembling Life Books for two sisters who got lucky. Isabella and Daniela were recently adopted by a local family. During the six-month process of putting together scrapbooks for the girls, Larrain and Hruska have gotten to know them very well. They have taken the girls to feed the ducks. They have had them over for barbeques. They know their hopes and dreams. But Larrain and Hruska remember how hard it was at the beginning. Unearthing details in CPS files is not easy, and not just because it is tedious. Each woman was glad to have the other there for support as they learned the tale of abandonment and neglect that marked these girls’ lives.

As they show me the Life Books they have created, they beam. Two pink-checked covers with 8- by-10-inch color pictures of two beautiful, smiling faces. Pictures of the girls with their adoptive parents on a Hawaiian vacation. A glowing judge just after he conducted the proceedings on their adoption day. Daniela’s first Holy Communion. A game with red-and-green Velcro cutouts to encourage the girls to learn about their Mexican heritage. And then, the most astonishing thing. A foster mom from years ago had taken pictures of the girls every time she took them to CPS for visits with their biological parents. With their biological parents. Everyone is beaming in these pictures. The biological mother and father look to be about high-school age. When the girls look at their scrapbooks, they will see images of the biological parents they have not seen in more than four years.

When volunteers complete a scrapbook, a party is arranged to present the book to the child. Open pages are left for the future so the child can add “The Prom” or “Graduation” or “My First Car.” A journal, with questions to prompt a child’s thought process, also is included. This makes the book another tool for therapy, a starting point for sharing feelings.

“These kids are asked over and over (by professionals) how they are feeling,” Hill says. “They often don’t have the (experience of) one-on-one contact and the closeness of a relationship with another adult. It is hard to know where to start.” I think of my own children and how hard it is sometimes to pull simple details from them about what happened at school. Imagine being asked to spill your personal thoughts and feelings, on command, to yet another stranger.

“Having all of the information, the personal history of the child, the events of their lives, where they lived, who cared for them, where they attended schools–this neatly packaged book provides a point from which to start so communication can begin,” Hill says. “What we do is package their lives in something really pretty. We put in the positive . . . we untie all of the knots of their lives . . . then they are more likely to approach it and talk about the past and what happened to them along the way. You are handing someone their life, their whole story. You are giving them something they would never have.”

Jesse Cooper turned 16 this past summer. He’s medium tall, with close-cropped black hair, chocolate skin and soft brown eyes. He wears a diamond stud in his ear, a gray ribbed tank top and long, baggy cargo shorts. Around his neck and wrist are lightweight silver chains; on his feet are bright red socks and Adidas sandals.

I was told that Jesse lives in one of the “better” group homes in the Valley. I have never been to visit anyone at a group home before and I’m not sure what to expect. I find myself searching for the house in a neighborhood with landscaped yards, two-car garages and plenty of trees. I wind along streets with houses that are decidedly middle class and very well maintained.

Finally, I find it. There are two cars in the driveway, a sedan and a larger SUV. The landscaping is easy-care desert gravel, scattered with cactus. A small American flag on a stick is stuck in to the house number on the slump-block wall near the entrance. The sounds of rap music can be heard as I approach the double doors, the first clue that teenagers live here.

The music stops and someone answers the door. I can smell signs of dinner on the stove. In group homes, supervisors live with the children in various shifts, cooking meals and keeping track of everyone’s whereabouts. On duty this evening is a tall man in his late 20s or early 30s. He extends a huge hand and introduces himself as “J.” He welcomes me into the entryway. The place is immaculate.

J directs me to a room with two big leather sofas that face the standard but now silent TV-VCR-Nintendo set up. Jesse sits alone on one sofa, engrossed in history homework he’s hoping to finish before basketball practice begins in an hour.

He willingly answers any question I ask about his life, his plans, his past. He shows me his room, which is loaded with basketball clippings and pictures of Michael Jordan. Even the vertical blinds are decorated with small pictures cut to fit. This is one of the first teenager’s rooms I’ve seen that does not need a professional organizer. Everything is in place. A chart shows how much colleges cost. A Bible sits on the night stand, its cover missing. At the top, in black marker, the words “God Bless Me.”

Jesse shows me his Life Book. Flipping through, I can see he loved to read Winnie-the-Pooh when he was small. That he loves catfish and greens. That “Home Alone” was his favorite movie, and that Operation was his favorite game.

He points to the houses he has lived in. He tells me some of them are not good memories and he has taken the picture of one particular house out of the scrapbook. There is a picture of his older brother in military uniform. A picture of him holding a sister’s new baby. A few pages with some relatives from California.

Jesse’s Life Book was created by Rebecca Patterson and Heather van VanderSchaas. They found out about Life Books through the Junior League of Phoenix, a funding source for the project. Patterson is the mother of a 3-year-old; van VanderSchaas is a dental hygienist. They have taken Jesse to lunch, shopping for Christmas, to a Suns game. Patterson’s young son loves him and the relationship is continuing beyond the Life Book experience. “Jesse is really sweet, and a strong kid with a sense of himself,” says Patterson. “He was never hesitant to tell us about his life.”

One of the difficulties Patterson and van VanderSchaas did face, however, was getting people to respond to their letters and phone calls. Patterson said it broke their hearts that they were unable to learn some of Jesse’s milestones: when he crawled, when he took his first step. They had little success in finding baby pictures. Or report cards.

They drove him around the city to photograph each of his former foster homes. They tracked down the address of the home where he lived with his biological mother many years ago. He had not seen the place since he was removed from the home as a young child.

At the end of Jesse’s Life Book are the pages for his journal. He is annoyed with himself for not sticking to the plan to write in it on a regular basis. Hey, I tell him, plenty of people miss days–even months. He does have three or four pages filled with impeccable handwriting. One question stands out: “Every day, ask yourself: What do you love?”

The answer? “I would say, everything positive in life.”

Suppose you found out that the bleach was in a beer bottle and, when you were 2 years old, you walked by and took a swig. You lived in a crack house; bleach was often left around. It was only later that you learned toddlers do stuff like that; they’re curious, they explore. It was not your fault. Your mom was responsible for watching you and keeping you safe. When you drank the bleach, she was asleep.

She was also asleep when your older brother wandered over to the neighbor’s yard, walked through a gate that was left ajar and saw a ball floating on the surface of the pool. Reached for it. Fell in. Splash. Somehow he survived. You’re not sure how.

One day, your brother was hit by a truck and ended up with some broken bones. Other people got involved. Parent aides visited your house and found you hungry. Dirty. No one was taking care of you. So you had to go and live somewhere else. To Mrs. Clark’s, with all of those other children who didn’t live with their parents anymore either.

In your Life Book, there is a secret compartment behind a bright orange paper basketball. No one would find it unless they knew to tuck their fingers in the paper slit down the center. Folded up in this hidden pocket is a white sheet of paper, single spaced. A letter. You read it, and it describes exactly what happened, the entire story of your life, from the beginning. Reading it feels like someone opened a door. The fresh air pours in and you are able to step outside. And, one step at a time, you began to understand.

Learn more

Making each Life Book costs anywhere from $700 to $1,000 in materials and staff time. The Life Book program is privately funded. The number of books that can be created depends on how much money can be raised and how many volunteers can be found.

“The reality is that this program is something extra added that doesn’t happen to most kids that go through the foster care program,” says Susan Shattuck, executive director of the Arizona Children’s Association’s foundation.

Annette Hill, AzCA’s foster care recruiter and Life Books coordinator, estimates threre are 36 children on the waiting list for a Life Book. For more information, visit arizonaschildren.org.