An Effective Answer, Ignored

Anchor Veronica is 15 years old, a typical teenager living with her father. She’s thinking about boys, her junior year, boys, homecoming, and boys. Then, boom! Her whole world changes overnight because her dad is sent to prison. Unable to be left on her own, Veronica is now in foster care, and at 15, there is almost no chance that she will be adopted. In her state, when she reaches 18, she will be put out on the street alone, with no support and no family. Veronica has a high chance of becoming homeless, turning to drugs or prostitution, or ending up in prison -- all before her 20th birthday… unless something happens to change her future now!

I didn’t start out planning to provide a solution to the problem of children stuck in the foster care system. However, after years of working successfully in this field, nothing I have done in my professional life has provided more personal satisfaction as connecting these children with their families.

In the early 1990s, though I was living in the U.S., I spent much of my time in Mexico doing international marketing. Much of my work relied upon my ability to identify and track down important yet relatively obscure government officials in Mexico. People pointed out that I had a special talent for locating people, and my successful sleuthing prompted a few associates to ask me to locate relatives with whom they had lost touch. Before I knew it, I was getting calls from strangers asking for help in locating a family member, which led me to launch the company that would grow into the non-profit organization, Find Families In Mexico (FFIM).

I started specializing in locating relatives, often mothers and fathers living in Mexico whose children were in the U.S. foster care system. At the other end of this situation, many of these kids, now adults and aged out of the system, were desperately looking for family members. Through my organization, I have been able to help more than 7,000 families in the U.S. and countries such as Germany, the U.K. and Australia be reunited with family members in Mexico.  

I have worked with foster care agencies across the country to identify and locate family members living in Mexico and Latin America of children in U.S. foster care. Make no mistake: only a handful of the foster child cases we have handled during the last 20 years have involved children who crossed over from the outside the U.S. Virtually all cases that foster youth agencies bring to FFIM involve U.S.-born children of at least one U.S.-born parent. Our success internationally often leads case workers back to relatives in the U.S. that their agency either never knew about or was unable to locate. Yet no matter how a child ends up in foster care, our goal, and hopefully, the goal of each and every agency we work with, is to get these children out of the system as fast as possible. The process always begins with family finding.

What is family finding? As I wrote in the March 2016 article, “Demystifying Family Finding,” it is the process of identifying, locating and notifying parents and adult relatives when a child is placed in foster care.

Let me make this clear: family finding is not optional. The Fostering Connections Act of 2008, Section 103, states:

‘‘… within 30 days after the removal of a child from the custody of the parent or parents of the child, the State shall exercise due diligence to identify and provide notice to all adult grandparents and other adult relatives of the child (including any other adult relatives suggested by the parents), subject to exceptions due to family or domestic violence…”

Foster care agencies are directed to search out, find and then officially notify a foster child’s adult family members that their young relative is in the agency’s custody. Anything less than providing due diligence by the governmental agency can only be construed as refusing to do one of the most fundament activities for a foster child – helping that child get out of the system as fast as possible. No caseworker, director or anyone in the public should accept any excuses for this not taking place.

In the identification phase of family finding, the proposed goal is to create a list of dozens of adult relatives so that at least some will have the desire and be in a position to take in the foster child.  Many caseworkers work off of a list of names provided by one or both parents. Children can also be a source of family names although they may not be able to provide specific contact information.

Intelius and LexisNexis are two national databases that many agencies use to get addresses and phone numbers for relatives. Many offices have contracts with these firms so that a search of records is relatively inexpensive, in some cases as little as ten dollars. Kevin Campbell, founder of the Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness and the developer of family finding, recently accessed one of these databases and was able to find dozens of relatives for a specific individual within minutes. The payoff of getting a foster child in relative placement should outweigh the time it takes to develop a process so that all case workers are able to identify the largest number of family members possible.

Once armed with a list, case workers then want to focus on locating these relatives. Having worked with databases for decades, I can attest that having an address and phone number in no way guarantees that the information is correct. In fact, the information in many databases is woefully outdated. Add to this that up to 10% of the U.S. population moves every year, the goal of locating relatives can be less of a slam dunk and more hit-and-miss.

The only way you will know that an address or phone number isn't accurate is to mail out a notice or make that call. Then it's back to the list, and either interviewing other relatives or checking other databases, since the results you get per search may differ from company to company. The answer to any family finding challenge is preferably for each office to adopt procedures so that this process gets more refined each month. Departmental procedures also help ensure that no one individual is the sole guardian of the secrets to locating and notifying relatives.

Family finding is not the only solution for foster children, but it is a powerful tool that is too often not used to its fullest potential -- or worse, is treated as a suggestion rather than the obligation that each case worker and foster care agency should be bent on fulfilling.

As for Veronica, the 15-year-old mentioned at the top of this article, she’s no longer in foster care. We found her birth mother, grandmother and several other relatives. Veronica now lives with two of her aunts and has gone back to thinking about college, boys, and whatever else a teenager with a future full of possibilities and family support may imagine.

My goal in the coming months is to inform and support you if you are tasked with executing family finding, as well as to encourage you to embrace this important and critical activity, which has the power to change the life of a foster child for the better. Feel free to ask questions and let me know how I can help you.