Videotape and the Memory Visit: A Living Lifebook for Adopted Children
Clegg, Paula, Toll, Ken, Child Welfare
Videocassette recorders have become a staple in most American households. Although used primarily for entertainment, they can also offer a unique channel for communication that is just beginning to be explored in the adoption field. While many adoption workers are familiar with the benefit of videotapes as an aid in recruitment and preparation, a simple videotape of biological parents can open up avenues of development and self-exploration for an adoptee that are unavailable in printed information or thirdhand verbal information. Generational continuity is a secondary benefit offered by this medium. All members of the adoption triad can find a lifetime of uses from one easily produced videotape.
Traditional lifebooks are commonly used to give an adopted child a sense of continuity from the family of origin into the adoptive family. These books typically resemble a photo album, with pictures, mementos, and text all serving to document the child's history. A videotape format can add dimensions, however, that are not available in the printed format, by allowing the biological relatives to communicate directly in their own words and expressions.
The Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange, in collaboration with the Jackson County Department of Social Services, has produced several of these "living lifebooks." We are sharing our experiences in the hope of furthering the usage of this powerful tool as well as soliciting the experiences of others who may be using videotapes in adoption.* Although the project has consisted entirely of children whose parents' rights were terminated due to abuse and/or neglect, applications of the approach can also be developed for voluntary releases or direct consent adoptions. Whether the aim is to provide a brief "good-bye visit" from the biological parents, to offer genetic and health information, to build a foundation for the child's ethnic identity (especially in the case of transracial adoptions), or any one or combination of other possible objectives, videotapes have much to offer the adoption process. Most of our projects have sought to create a comprehensive living lifebook or memory visit, encompassing all of these purposes. Four-year-old Jimmy sat enthralled in front of the T.V. set as the tape started up for the third time this particular day. His biological mother appeared on the screen, and the resemblance to Jimmy was striking. "Hello, Jim," she began, "I'd like to tell you a little about your biological family." Jimmy's adoptive mother sat down next to him, and they settled in together to watch the tape and talk.*
A carefully produced living lifebook provides the means for a biological parent (or parents) to personally communicate his or her perceptions of the child's family of origin, including the positive anecdotes about the family that would otherwise be lost in the adoption process. Family rituals and traditions can also be shared, in the hope of preserving the family's unique character. Allowing the child to actually see and hear the biological parents/family facilitates the communication of nonverbal characteristics as well, such as facial similarities, gestures, speech patterns, and other mannerisms. In transracial adoption, this information can prove especially valuable as the child develops a sense of racial and cultural identity.
The biological family can actually diagram and provide narration for a family tree of successive generations, and explain each branch. Included in this section could be such information as significant family naming patterns; events such as marriages, deaths, and births; special talents and accomplishments; and family patterns of dysfunction that may have altered family relationships (e.g., alcoholism, abuse).
Detailed genetic/medical/birth history information can also be gathered and appear on the videotape. The child's prenatal development and birth history can be described. Patterns of diseases that the child and his or her children may be susceptible to developing can be identified, and any genetic predisposition to diseases such as alcoholism, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder could be illuminated. …