Family Finding: A Foster Care Crisis

Foster care is in crisis from many issues. Every week exposes stories about foster children who have been overmedicated, starved or bullied. These forms of abuse are overshadowed by the more violent and disturbing occurrences of sexual assault, rape or murder by foster parents and/or their children, some adoptive parents and even other foster children who have become sexual predators.

Thousands of former foster children, foster care workers, advocates and politicians are proposing solutions and launching a range of programs aimed at helping foster children who arrive into the system, those who spend years in foster care until they age out and foster teens transitioning into adulthood and self-reliability. With enthusiasm for the new and fresh, the proven and time-tested activities are all too often ignored.

Family finding is one such process.

Family finding is the function of identifying, locating and notifying parents and other adult relatives of a foster child. This process came into play in the early 1990s in Washington State. In 2008, the Fostering Connections Act was enacted that, in part, mandated that foster care agencies do family finding. Many states passed this mandate into law.

Child experts, case workers and judges are generally in agreement that foster care is not the best place for a child to spend years of their young lives. The system was never intended to be a government institution that raises children until adulthood. Too often children who do remain in foster care suffer a lack of stability with constant moves from one home to another, frustration with losing friends and adults who care about them and long term depression.

Roughly 24,000 foster teens age out of the system annually, and their lifetime statistics are appalling and obscene. 

  • Between 20-30% will become homeless.
  • 48% must find ways to complete their high school education while searching for food and safe shelter.
  • Half of female foster teens will become pregnant by age 19.

These terrible outcomes usually occur within just two years of foster children being forced out of the system. If these statistics aren’t enough to motivate change by politicians and foster care agencies, then let’s put some dollars to this problem.

Michael Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan, in his article, “Foster Kids Need Support Past 18,” wrote,Foster children who age out cost the state an average of $300,000 in social costs over the former foster child’s lifetime.” To put this into perspective, the foster children who will age out of the system this year will cost society $7.2 billion dollars. Those kids aging out in 2018 will cost tax payers another $7.2 billion dollars. Houston, Texas is reported to have roughly 200 children forced out of foster care each year so their cost will be about $60 million or the equivalent of having 223 teenagers housed and educated at Harvard University for four years.

Fortunately, family finding can prevent these horrific outcomes by locating a parent, grandparent or other adult relatives who often are able and willing to take in their foster child relative. Family members can provide love, support and protection. Even if the child is of teenage years, at least they now have a connection to their relatives that helps the teen better transition into adulthood. Barring reunification with a parent or other family members, the results of an intense and experienced family finding process can open the door for an adoption to move forward, making this effort a vitally important process.

While there is always the hope that enough families will step up as foster parents to take in a child, this is only a hope and not a realistic one. States across the country routinely lament how desperately they need foster parents. To understand this crisis, you need only read the following from news provided by Children’s Home Society of North Carolina:

“In May 2017, a steadily rising number of children in [North Carolina] foster care broke the 11,000 mark, the highest level in 10 years, and a nearly 28 percent increase over the last five years.”

While there is a great demand for foster parents, couples and adults have to endure an extensive vetting process. All too often, that process gets derailed by the personal feelings of a caseworker or even a judge toward the applicants, preventing many who are willing and ready to become foster parents from ever assuming that responsibility. Knowing that it’s unrealistic to expect that there will ever be enough people waiting in the wings to take in each and every child that enters foster care, it’s even more important that family finding be expanded in every county and state.

Yet family finding is suffering a quiet and ignored crisis of its own. The white paper, “What is Family Finding and Engagement?” by the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) states that several advocates, including the Children's Defense Fund, define family finding as:

"The practice of rigorously searching for and engaging extended family members and other supportive adults to establish an enduring support network for children."

"Intensive relative search and engagement techniques to identify family and other close adults for children in foster care."

"An intensive search method to find family members."

The operative words are “intensive” and “rigorous.” Yet we can't apply these terms unless there is some standardization of the family finding process. Only then can we check the baseline, meaning where we are presently in relation to the outcome we want to achieve.

While many foster care agencies across the country have formal procedures in place, there is little oversight to ensure that each agency’s family finding is intensive. Additionally, there are still too many offices where family finding is treated as an optional activity. These agencies end up being responsible for placing foster children in homes where they may be at risk of being abused, maimed or even killed.

Overall agency leadership and lack of a person in a supervisory position are just two of the reasons given by foster care agencies for their inability to execute or expand family finding. One of the worst ways in which agencies defer this action is through the stated need to wait until a new director is in place. Months often go by before this staffing problem is resolved, during which time hundreds of foster children languish under a county’s care. Furthermore, agencies have their own levels of bureaucracy so that the decision to enact family finding may rely on the approval of another department such as Legal or Accounting. We know firsthand of other agencies where the legal department was pushing to enhance their family finding program but management denied the request.

Statistics reveal that agencies also suffer from case worker turnover rates as high as 70%. We have worked cases where, between initiation of family finding and its completion, a third staff member was in charge of the case because the first two had resigned or been moved to another area. With this extreme amount of movement by personnel, it’s nearly insane to think that foster children are getting the best level of care during these changes.

The answer to enhancing family finding is not enacting new laws. That’s simply another delaying tactic that places tens of thousands of foster children at risk of abuse or not receiving the care -- both emotional and medical -- that they require. The only change that family finding needs is for the states and federal government to put some teeth behind their existing laws.

What foster kids need are protective laws that have enforcement to back them up, so that foster care agencies will do thorough due diligence, which means family finding. Many states already have laws that clearly mandate that family finding needs to be executed. Now we just need our state politicians to step up and enact laws, or put someone in charge who is tasked with ensuring that their foster care agencies do what they should have been doing: looking for parents and other adult relatives who can provide a more stable environment for the foster children under the agency’s care.

In short, here's a straightforward question for foster care agencies and politicians: Do you want to minimize the length of time foster children spend in care, lower their risk of abuse and dramatically improve their chances of having a normal future? If the answer is “Yes,” then family finding cannot be treated as an option. This effort must become "The practice of rigorously searching for and engaging extended family members and other supportive adults to establish an enduring support network for children." Anything less must be considered universally unacceptable. Our foster children deserve better.