Foster care hasn’t been standing still during this pandemic. Foster parent programs and adoptions have gone viral. One federal move that has received great attention is the government placing a freeze on aging out foster kids. With that in mind, foster care agencies and non-profits have been creating and enhancing transitional programs.
What is a transitional program and how helpful is it in solving the root problem of helping children leave foster care and return to their family? Transitional programs are those that help youths who are to age out. There will always be a need for these programs since roughly 23,000 foster kids age out yearly. ABC had a segment titled, “Aging out, but not abandoned; program helps foster kids stay on track.” With media coverage such as that, transitional programs have become the new “bright shiny object” of foster care.
However, while many agencies are investing heavily in this area, a vital process – family finding – is being ignored. Giving my thoughts on the ABC story about transitional program, I wrote on social media, “Thousands of foster kids wouldn't need these [transitional] programs if better efforts were made to find relatives who will often give a child a forever family.”
Family finding can provide several benefits to a foster kid. As often happens with opinions about foster care, many people only see foster care through the lens of their locale. For example, one person might believe that foster children don’t have relatives who will take them in so why spend taxpayer money trying to locate family members. This attitude is almost always based on personal experience and not reflective of foster care nationally. Thus, the process often gets passed over with public and governmental support going instead to other programs that don’t directly impact the well-being of a foster child.
Family Finding is the activity of identifying, locating and notifying a kid’s relatives that the child is in foster care. Despite opinions to the contrary, studies reveal that agencies have about an 85% success rate at finding at least one relative. In many cases, dozens of relatives are located increasing the prospect that at least one of these adult family members will step up and either take in the child or adopt them. In other cases, at least one or more relatives will be interested in having contact with the child.
Another positive upshot of Family Finding is that when foster children are more quickly placed with relatives, their vacancy reduces the total number of cases and can help lower the caseload for social workers. This outcome will not solve all of the challenges of overburdened caseworkers, but successful Family Finding often moves those children who spend years in foster care out of the system and into a permanent home with relatives.
Children under the care of family members generally fare better emotionally and mentally than those who are placed with strangers, and much better than those moved into a group home setting.
Family finding is not some ill-conceived process. It’s based off of the extremely successful process used around the world by the Red Cross. This organization is able to go into a disaster-ridden area where thousands of people have been separated because of floods, fires or war and reunite family members.
While it is true that not every child has relatives who will take them in, this outcome does not remove the importance of family finding. For those cases where relatives won’t step up, the way is often cleared for that child to be adopted. At least these relatives had a chance to decide to care for this child. Tens of thousands of relatives either are never contacted or have to struggle to try to get custody of their niece, nephew or grandchild.
Again, the problem with the U.S. foster care system is that too much focus is being placed on “bright, shiny” transitional programs and investing only in foster and adoption programs. These are needed activities, but they will continue to fail tens of thousands of children who enter foster care and who could be placed back with their families rather than spending the majority of their childhood in a government system. While not every foster child will be taken in by an aunt or grandparent, 85% of the time agencies will find relatives.
You can’t win if you don’t play or even try, and thousands of foster kids each year will not have a chance of having a forever home unless agencies do the family finding. Happy endings require effort. Foster kids deserve a system that works diligently from the get go to give them a loving family.