Family Albums for kids without a family

Sam, this is your life.

"You were born on June 3, 1984. You weighed 10 pounds, 3 ounces. Your mom's name was Angie.

"She had blond hair, blue eyes, and an outgoing, friendly personality. But she was also an alcoholic who suffered mental problems, never knew her own father, was abused by two husbands and several boyfriends, and used other drugs.

"That's why you never got to know her."

So starts 13-year-old Sam's "life book," the closest thing kids in foster care have to Mom or Dad, grandparents, or a family friend telling them what it was like the day they were born or about the time they ate a bowl of cat food. Sam is in foster care in Tucson, Ariz.

Most children grow up with parents who can recall - and painstaking record - the early milestones of their lives. But many foster children grow up without that sort of attention.

They may live with three, five, or 10 foster families and in a handful of shelters before they turn 18. Photographs, drawings, and report cards often are lost as they move from place to place.

When they're 8, they can't remember the foster mother who took them to kindergarten. By the time they are 13, they haven't seen in five years the foster father who taught them to throw a baseball.

Life books are an attempt to neatly chronicle the sparse mementos of these children's lives and are often the only record of their childhoods.

"It gives them a sense of belonging, of importance, of value," says Susan Hallett of Arizona's Child Protective Services. "It tells them, 'I matter.' "

Foster parents, caseworkers, and others who work with foster children have been putting together photo albums and scrapbooks for years, hoping to document these kids' often-turbulent lives in something other than the courts' stark manila files.

But it can take months to compile a life book and it costs $30 to $50 for supplies.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, director of Children's Rights Inc., an advocacy group in New York, says that life books provide some continuity and stability for foster children who often are moved from place to place.

Child advocates admit that the life books do not represent sweeping changes in the nation's foster-care system, nor can the books repair damage done to children. They are, after all, simply scrapbooks. The Child Welfare League of America encourages life books as a means of providing foster children with concrete evidence that their lives are important enough to keep track of.

"Foster children need the same things that other children need, not to look back and wonder, 'What did I look like at 10?' or 'When did I lose my first tooth?' " league spokeswoman Joyce Johnson says. "They need to know those things, the sort of things the rest of us take for granted."

Yet, there is no national movement to assure that every foster child has a life book, and only a few states have organized programs to produce life books.

In Arizona's Pima County, though, about 80 foster kids have received life books in the past two years as part of an effort by volunteers.

In Sam's book are pictures of his mother and the first house in which he lived. There is a copy of his birth certificate, including prints of his tiny baby feet. Also tucked inside is a dogeared book that his mother once read to him at night.

Every life book is different. Some are ornate, decked with ribbons and lace. Others are decorated with computer-generated art and bright colors.

To make the books, volunteers interview foster parents, teachers, doctors, counselors, and caseworkers to piece together a child's history. In Arizona, volunteers are allowed access to confidential files so that they can fill in details.

Other states have not granted this kind of access. For example, while the state of Pennsylvania has provided training over the past decade for those interested in making life books, state records are off-limits.

Joya Zimmerman, vice president of the Monroe County Foster Parent Association in Pennsylvania, has been a foster mother to 104 kids over 16 years. She has made plenty of life books.

"These children often don't have anything but the clothes on their backs and their memories," Ms. Zimmerman says, adding that the children in her care kept their life books under their pillows and looked at them often.

Without access to state records, Zimmerman says, she often had to rely on the children's memories, which can be shaky. Still, it was good for the kids to dig for happy memories to include in their books.

Harley Ithier's life book explains that he was born on Jan. 20, 1990, at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, weighing 5 pounds, 14 ounces, and how his mother disappeared by the time he was ready to go home.

It tells how he lived in a shelter, then with his grandmother for a short time. He lived in another shelter until he was 3 and his mother got out of prison.

The narrative, written by volunteer Sharlene Gardner, explains, "My mother continued to have lots of problems and did not provide a nice, safe home. I spent a lot of time by myself and sometimes I was frightened. Many times there were bad people around, people who did not care about me."

Harley is still in the state's care, available for adoption. In his life book are photographs of the hospital where he was born, the apartment complex where he lived with his grandmother, and a school he attended.

But there are no photographs of him before age 6, when a Polaroid photo shows him standing stiffly against the white wall at a shelter.

Gardner writes to Harley, "You have been very brave to have lived in so many places and attended so many schools. Set your goals high, Harley. You can achieve your dreams."

The details of 13-year-old Rhonda's short life are chronicled in a scrapbook with a dusty-pink cover, made for her by volunteer Alyce Tilford of Phoenix. Rhonda's scrapbook is packed with photographs.

"I am so cute!" she squeals, pointing at a baby picture.

She is one of more than 6,000 children in foster care in Arizona, many of whom who could use life books, says Marc Kellenberger, an associate executive director of the association. He hopes for more money and volunteers.

Ms. Tilford admits it was emotionally draining to reconstruct Rhonda's difficult life with a happy bent. Tilford thought about her own, now-grown, children and the idyllic childhood they enjoyed. She'll take some time off before she starts another one.

But she will make another life book. It is the least these children deserve, she says.

Rhonda has lived in seven foster homes and attended seven schools. She lives in a group home with five other girls.

"I'm going to cry," Rhonda says, flipping through the colorful pages. "I'll keep this forever and show it to my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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