May is National Foster Care Month, a time to celebrate the wins in foster care. But more importantly, it’s a time to scrutinize and address areas of the system that have not progressed over the years. One of the most important -- and federally mandated -- procedures, family finding, is still being underused or ignored entirely by foster care agencies. While family finding is a proven process with enormous benefit for foster children, their families, and foster care institutions, too many agencies across the country continue to treat this activity as a drain on valuable resources… and in that, they are wrong.
The countless family finding success stories are ignored by many foster care agencies. The process of identifying, locating and notifying parents and relatives of the children in foster care is an important activity where agencies can expect a success rate of eighty to eighty-five percent. Yet thousands of foster children spend years in foster care institutions deprived of any contact with their families. The result is that each year roughly 24,000 foster youths age out onto the streets alone, yet are expected to find a safe place to live and a way to buy enough food to eat on a daily basis.
Much has changed over the last ten years. When we used to contact foster care agencies and ask for their Family Finding department, odds were about even that the receptionist would have no idea what family finding was -- and often no such department existed. Some counties didn’t have a distinctive family finding unit. Others had only one person, usually an individual contractor, who performed family finding for the county. Other offices knew about family finding but had no formal procedures in place.
But now things are better, right? Sadly, no.
The problem is that family finding is a lot like losing weight. Everyone knows it is good for their overall health. Many people want to lose at least a few pounds. (I’d be happier with ten fewer pounds myself!) Here is the answer to reaching or maintaining one’s preferred weight – it requires that the person eat less and exercise more. It’s simple. Straightforward. Not too complicated. And it works.
The challenge is that almost no one likes that exercise-diet solution. We don’t have just bicycles but PelotonTM bikes, with elaborate (and probably very interesting) training programs and visuals. Weight WatchersTM and other entities exist to help people eat well while losing weight. And let’s not even talk about the countless devices and products that are designed and marketed to help one lose weight without diet and exercise.
Family finding is similar to exercise and diet. Almost everyone believes in “family first,” in preserving the family with some level of support so that children are not taken away forever, their parents lose all their parental rights, and their child ends up living with strangers. We know what to do. We just need to do it!
Family finding is not fancy, but just like exercise and diet to lose weight, family finding almost always works to give people the results they want. Unfortunately, one has to start the process and stay with it in order for it to work. Well-executed family finding most often reunites child with parent, child with an adult family member who will love and care for them, or will clear obstacles and allow for an adoption to go through, again giving a lonely child a loving forever family.
Studies show that when foster children are reunited with family members, they do much better in school, have higher graduation rates, and are more likely to get and keep a job. On the other hand, a 2014 university study revealed that foster children who age out will require as much as $300,000 in social services over their lifetime.
Placement with a relative benefits everyone. One of the many cases our charity took on involved a sister and her younger brother. The sister had already aged out of foster care and was on her own. Child Protective Services had not been successful at finding these children’s relatives. The fear was that in several years, the brother would also be forced out of foster care, and both would spend the rest of their lives with no family to help them other than each other. Ms. Barak was involved with the case as a member of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a national organization of volunteers who work on behalf of a child in court procedures. Ms. Barak wrote, "The child... has had no contact with family members for a number of years and has suffered greatly because of it."
Fortunately, the case was referred to our charity. We knew that if we found at least one adult family member, it would change the lives of these two siblings forever. Within a few weeks, we were able to provide Ms. Barak with contact information. She was then able to call and talk with the children's birth father as well as with several other adult relatives, all residing outside the U.S. Ms. Barak also learned that these foster children had two aunts living in Illinois and passed that information to Child Protective Services. About our success in finding these family members, Ms. Barak wrote:
“We feel confident that we will be able to reconnect these siblings with their relatives and instill hope in a hopeless situation."
For those critics who say that reuniting more foster children with their families will mean losing state and federal dollars, I say that the job of foster care is to do what’s best for the child. While there would be thousands fewer foster children in the system, agencies would still need the current level of funding to properly care for those kids who need ongoing and expensive therapy for trauma or medical conditions. Expensive groups home will be needed, as will transitional programs. Foster parent recruitment and retention is costly and necessary. None of these services will disappear because together they have the potential to provide the best solution and outcome for each foster child.
As we celebrate National Foster Care Month, it’s critically important that more people advocate for family finding. Politicians must insist that this activity is properly funded. Universities need to include course work on family finding. Management has to institute oversight to ensure that this process is performed in a thorough manner that includes agencies notifying every relative of a foster child instead of choosing to only notify an absent parent – or worse, failing to locate and notify any family member.
Moving foster youth out of the system and into permanent homes with family benefits the children, the foster care system, and society. If you care deeply about foster children and want to make a difference in their lives, be the change. The best way to celebrate this month is to take some form of action on behalf of a foster child. These foster children deserve our best effort.
We know what to do; let’s do it!