Family Finding: The Better Path for Foster Youth

Many people feel that foster children are not receiving the services they so desperately need. That includes Wade Horn, former Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services. Two such services are family finding and relative placement, activities that are inseparably linked together.

“Family finding” is a social service and governmental term for the activity of identifying, locating and notifying adult family members that one of their related children is in foster care. Federal and many state laws mandate that thorough efforts are executed to locate family members of foster kids so they can move out of foster care and into "relative" placement, living with family as opposed to complete strangers. Kinship Care is the term used for this placement.

As I have written here in the past, many government foster care agencies have claimed that they lack the funding to expand their family finding. In order to improve the outcomes for California foster children, the state initiated a program called the Foster Parent Recruitment, Retention and Support Program (FPRRS) in 2015. Millions of dollars were set aside for counties that submitted an application with information on how funds would be used, along with the anticipated results. As the program name states, the foremost use presented to counties was the recruitment and retention of foster parents. One of the remaining three options for which a county could use the money was “intensive family finding.”

Many counties placed the majority, or in some cases all, of their supplemental funding into foster parent recruitment and retention. Unfortunately, after nearly three years, the results for many counties can be aptly labeled mediocre. Case in point is Contra Costa County, which was highlighted by journalist Holden Slattery in The Chronicle of Social Change article titled “Despite Increased Funding for Recruitment, Three California Counties Struggle to Find New Foster Homes.” Slattery reveals that despite the additional funding and having received fifty more applications for foster parents than in the prior year, the county lost more than 10% of its licensed foster homes. Little funding had been earmarked for expanded family finding.

Nearly half of California counties did not even list family finding in their application -- a huge mistake.

Yes, many foster care agencies desperately need more foster homes, but the strategy of using funds, whether federal or state, with the primary purpose to secure more foster parents is seriously flawed. Family finding must be the primary focus for any county.

Fortunately, one county recognized this reality and has positioned themselves and their foster children to be happy recipients of their strategy. California’s Glenn County, in their 2017/2018 application to the state for additional foster care funding, presented the following benefits of amplifying their present family finding activity:

“We plan to seek out family members or other non-related extended family who may have an interest and ability but who may have not been present in the life of the child currently. Children will have better connections to their siblings and their family members. They will also have better educational outcomes and less trauma caused by multiple placement moves. The goal will ultimately be to establish permanency for children/youth or minimally have more successful transition plans and connection to lifelong relationships as older youth age out of care.” Increased family finding “would save the county a substantial amount of money each year if a community relative placement is located and approved. The youth would transition back into the community. It presents about an 80% reduction in the cost of care, from payments of $10,000 to $14,000 a month down to around $2000 a month. The savings of successfully bringing 5 youths out of congregate care would [be] approximately $50,000… and bring our children back into this community where they can be nurtured by family and community. The expected outcome is an increase of placements with relatives by 30% or 7 homes. We would improve placement stability by 30% to 100%.”

Expanded family finding would dramatically improving the lives of several foster children, while an 80% reduction in foster care costs provided enormous savings. To put the dollar value into perspective, one foster child under the county’s care has a cost between $120,000 and $168,000 annually. With family finding, the county projects that their yearly cost per kid would drop to about $24,000 while giving the child a better, happier life.

An immediate result of this shift in priority could be the ability to apply those savings to amplify the county’s family finding until that process is functioning at a high level of effectiveness. At that point, the county could then funnel savings to the recruitment and retention of foster parents.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that with expanded family finding, not only will the county’s foster children have the chance of a positive life-changing future living with their families, but the need for foster homes will have also been reduced.

We all (I hope) want the best for those children who through no fault of their own end up in foster care. Most of us expect that the government will do its best to protect these children and get them out of foster care as fast as possible. The mission of foster care agencies is to have these children either returned to their parents or, in those cases where this is not possible, to have the children in relative placement. Making family finding a top priority is good management of the funds given to agencies to care for foster children. Some counties recognize the many benefits of relative placement for these kids. Hopefully, more counties will put aside whatever reservations they may have and embrace family finding as the critically important process it is. Foster children deserve our best, and agencies must act accordingly to make this so.