Family Finding: A Path to Adoption

A primary aim of foster care is to get children out of the system as soon as possible, ideally back to at least one parent. Barring this, agencies look to have foster youths placed with relatives or non-related adults, i.e. foster parents. But adoption is another option available for foster children, and as much as we advocate for relative placement, there are times when adoption is a better solution for a foster child.

Of the roughly 100,000 foster kids annually who are eligible to be adopted, it happens for relatively few teenagers. Once a child turns thirteen, their chances of being adopted drop to 2%, ensuring that almost all foster teens will face up to six more years in the system. A foster child advocate commented that foster care can seem like a prison sentence for a crime that the child not only didn’t commit, but is often too young to even understand.

Each year 24,000 foster teens are forced out of foster care, a process referred to as aging out. Of those, about 80% will experience extreme hardships. Nearly half have not finished high school and will stop their education. These kids often become homeless, engage in ongoing drug use, become a victim of sex trafficking and/or end up in prison, usually within just two years of aging out. By age 22, only 49% of former foster kids are employed. It’s a horrific future. Any alternative that can keep a child from aging out and being on their own is desirable.

Conducting family finding usually results in locating at least one relative of a foster child, someone who may be interested in at least having communication with the child. In the best case, an adult family member will take in the foster child. Children who are placed with relatives generally fare better emotional and mentally than those who are placed with strangers, and much better than in a group home settings. While family placement does not guarantee a happy outcome for the child, in a sample poll, some foster children said that they would have preferred being placed with a relative – no matter how distant - than with strangers.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to find family members.

  • Not every child has a long list of adult siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins to draw upon. In one case, a father was sent to prison, and Child Protective Services could only find records for one relative, an uncle who had died three years prior. As a result, the 15 year old daughter was placed in foster care.

  • There is no guarantee that a family member who takes in a relative foster child won’t commit a crime or some other act that would require removing the child and putting them back into the system.

  • In some instances, case workers have discovered that the foster child is being abused by their relatives. Many former foster kids have shared stories of how they were forced to become the equivalent of a family servant by their relatives, often subjected to lack of food and clothing.

  • Other times, none of the relatives can or wants to take in a child. We have worked on a few cases where a teenager was in foster care, but the relatives viewed the child as troubled so no one wanted them.

  • It’s always possible that the only available relatives are fighting their own demons and clearly not suitable to care for a child.

In all of these cases, adoption is a far better outcome for the child than leaving them to languish alone in a government-run institution.

However, one of the road blocks to an adoption can be the perceived lack of a thorough family finding by the agency. Judges are usually very sympathetic to the best interests of a foster child, but are reluctant to allow an adoption to move forward if they sense an agency has done a lackluster family finding effort.

We handled a case involving a foster teen who was in the system along with her baby. The foster care agency had hit a wall with finding either the girl’s biological father or mother, so adoption was seen as the best solution. The judge in this case wanted to be assured that every reasonable effort had been made to locate the birth parents. An adoption had been pending for more than a year, but without proof of due diligence, the judge wasn't prepared to issue an order that would terminate parental rights.

The county foster care agency had initially reached out to a non-profit for help with this case, and the non-profit in turn came to us. Our organization, Forever Homes for Foster Kids , took over the case and focused on family finding. 

The caseworker in this specific situation may have been overburdened, but it became clear that the agent was an obstacle to a successful outcome. Many studies point to the reality that social workers handling foster children cases are overworked. While a manageable level is about 17 cases a month, many case workers report having handled a load ranging from 30 to 50 cases. The most severe situations cite case workers handling nearly 70 cases at one time. However, even this horrific work overload does not excuse poor or no follow up in family finding.

This case dragged on for months, in large part because the caseworker – obviously dealing with burnout – either did not respond or delayed his response to our inquiries. Fortunately, the judge was a positive force on behalf of the foster child. He scheduled almost monthly court dates and insisted on receiving regular written update, which placed periodic but consistent pressure on the case worker. When a court date was pending, would we get a sudden flurry of communication from the case worker, desperate for progress to report to the judge. Only then could we make progress. It was definitely an example of how the courts can push a case in a positive direction.

Due to issues of confidentiality, there is much about this case that we cannot share. We can say that the father lived in a very remote location with no internet or even telephone. Given the situation, it's doubtful that the agency would ever have been able to establish, let alone maintain much contact with the father. Communication is critical, because once relatives are notified and have indicated they want to be part of a foster child’s life, foster care agencies put family members through a vetting process.

The foster teen's mother was located living in a relatively large town, but had no interest in reconnecting with her daughter or knowing about her grandchild. Once our findings had been presented to the judge, he ruled in favor of a TPR, Termination of Parental Rights. Since the teen and baby were already placed with a very caring foster couple who was willing to take in both of them, the adoption was completed just a few months later.

This case highlights the importance of a thorough family finding to open the path for a foster kid to be adopted. Judges in other states have insisted on similar levels of due diligence before they rule on a TPR and allow an adoption to proceed.

Some foster and expectant adoptive parents complain about the courts defaulting to family placement. What these adults fail to realize is that family finding is a federal mandate, and that quality due diligence can clear the way to allow stalled adoptions to move forward. Yes, these people may suffer emotionally as they watch kids come to them dirty and afraid, without clothes or toys or trust. These adults give their heart and care to help the child heal, only to have to stand by and watch as the child they had so hoped to adopt is given back to an alcoholic mother or indigent grandparent.

But being a foster parent means that relinquishing custody is part of the job, which is why I have the utmost respect for these people. They open their hearts and homes to hurt, abused, broken children who may at any time be taken away. That’s true love, because losing a foster child who is sent back to their birth parent(s) may be one of the most painful moments of a foster parent’s life.

In a perfect world mothers and fathers love, protect and support their children unconditionally. But we don't live in a perfect world. There are times that despite biology, some parents are uncaring, irresponsible and unloving. In the worst of circumstances, parents can be abusive and cruel, a physical danger to the lives of their children, resulting in their kids being in foster care in the first place. Make no mistake about it: there are some ruthless, sick, perverted adults in the world who also happen to be parents. Being able to remove children from their custody and place them in foster care is a blessing.

There will never be a magic bullet that ensures that no foster child will ever be harmed or abused. But family finding, when done thoroughly, helps to guarantee that where appropriate, parental rights can be terminated, an adoption can move forward to completion, and the foster child will finally have a new, better life with people who – hopefully -- will give that child all the love, care and stability they need and deserve. Sometimes adoption is simply the best for a child.