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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 32 SEPTEMBER 2001 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

children and families

A look at the place of heritage in care work

Garth Goodwin

Heritage is not something young people in care (or often their caregivers spend much time on. There are reasons for this, including the simple fact that few of us really do give much attention to our heritage in both the familial or general sense of the term — but things are changing. Knowing one’s past might have been viewed as an enhancement to living, but is now potentially becoming essential with the emerging discoveries in genetics and DNA identification. In the future, this may have some implications for young people in care and the standards for those in care. For the moment, this article will concern itself with memories. A recent experience flipping through hundreds of family photos reminded me of the value and the mystery of these objects which are now more appreciated for the parallels they offer to the larger history of the country itself and the role of heritage in our lives.

Young people in care often arrive with very little in terms of physical reminders of their past life. Some, the orphaned, often simply do not have a past life in the family sense; others have been through a series of moves already compounding their separation from family. Sometimes they will have a few precious items. Often, as their term in care extends, family will offer photographs, small albums and objects involving them or saved for them. These may in turn, become subject to destruction through impulsive anger, misplacement or indifference. There is an opportunity for the child and youth care practitioner here to help the young person realize or assign value to these images and perhaps allow them to become the first chapters in a longer story.

Preserving and recording material
Protection and safety of the images is a priority. The use of photo boxes, albums, frames or scrapbooks to give them a safe place to be is easy enough to do. Now with scanners being available almost everywhere pictures are printed, creating a digital record of these images is possible. They can then be reproduced at will, resized and even refined. One colleague routinely uses colour copiers to create blow-ups of images.

Creating a memory book or scrapbook can be the next step. There are now magazines devoted to this hobby offering tips on layout, creating backgrounds, adding items and so forth. The important thing would be to collaborate with the young person to tell their story in a way they will value, and perhaps take along with them. This enterprise can become part of therapy with the story changing over time as memories and healing allow for new perspectives. The real time events experienced in care can be woven into the journal as well. Often birthday parties are a first time experience for young people in care as are often many of the experiences they come to have. Recording these and offering the images to extend the story enhances this facet of living itself.

There are some young people who wish to push beyond the journal phase. Adopted young people sometimes request and engage in an adoption search. There are legal issues which can complicate this, and agencies which can assist. The important thing would be to proceed in measured and respectful steps mindful of the wishes of all the parties involved. Some are truly interested in genealogy. Certain ethnic groups maintain extensive databases which can assist in building a family tree. There is also a vast and growing amount of information on the Internet around this whole area.

Finally, there is history itself — the heritage we all get to share in some way. Here, the range for exploration can go from the deeply personal to that of a lifestyle choice. The young person may wish to explore places they have lived, scenes of significance, be they playgrounds, parks or public places where something significant happened for them. Visiting graveyards, to come to terms with those family they may have never known or had some memory of, is a common request. Racial or ethnic background information can become the motivation to read more, learn rituals and even join and participate in the ongoing culture they may wish to reclaim for themselves.

Often young people in care feel they have nothing and many do indeed have very little to draw upon. That does not have to be the case where a child and youth care practitioner can act as a guide and a facilitator toward building a positive personal history which can link into the larger multicultural and ever more significant history of the nation itself. Most of us, if we could look back far enough would come to a time where an individual ancestor who did not have much, indeed was the root of all our families are today. From this perspective, the child and youth care practitioner becomes the steward of heritage itself.