When family history is more than a hobby: Improving the wellbeing of care leavers through genealogical research and narrative practice

Leaving care
Thursday 26 July, 1400 – 1420


Dr Cate O’Neill
University of Melbourne

Psychological literature presents knowledge of family history as a “clinically useful index of psychological wellbeing” (Duke et al., 2008). A series of Australian government inquiries have demonstrated the harmful, intergenerational impact of a childhood in institutional “care” and the consequent loss of identity and connection with family.

This paper will discuss the findings of the interdisciplinary Routes to the Past project, which brought together academics from social work, history and psychology; practitioners from organisations supporting care leavers; and people with lived experience. Together, they explored how people whose sense of individual and family identity has been disrupted by out-of-home care can be provided with information about their past and empowered to develop new, coherent narratives.

The project proposed an innovative, interdisciplinary methodology of “genealogical lifestory work”, a synthesis of narrative practice, therapeutic lifestory work, family history research and digital storytelling. This new approach has the potential for care leavers to rebuild a sense of personal, intergenerational identity, and to become storytellers and storykeepers within their families and communities.

The paper will discuss how knowledge of family history creates a stronger “intergenerational self”, with positive effects for care leavers’ wellbeing. The findings from Routes to the Past provide new perspectives on the ways care leavers can use historical information to build and rebuild a sense of identity. This paper will invite delegates to reconsider family history and the importance of family narratives and family knowledge to a person’s wellbeing, especially for care leavers, former child migrants and members of the Stolen Generations.