Once again it’s National Foster Care Month when hopefully millions of people will focus their attention on foster children and ways to reduce their number in the system. Unfortunately many issues prevent effective reduction including conflicts of interest, breakdowns of internal procedures, and limitations placed on family finding specialists to perform their work. One of the aims of this column is to put forth procedures to improve the efficiency of family finding.
As mentioned in my last column, family finding is the activity of identifying, locating and then notifying a foster child's relatives of the child’s plight. A serious risk to the effectiveness and benefits of family finding is the disconnect between family finding specialists and Child Protective Services (CPS).
CPS is the principle agency responsible for all aspects of foster care including family finding. These activities are generally handled at the county level. Most people are unaware that many counties across the U.S. have contracted out their family finding services to non-profit organizations. The Children's Service Society of Wisconsin handles this process for their state's foster children while other entities, such as the National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (CASA), may provide this due diligence nationally through their offices and volunteers.
The advantage of contracting out this service is that these non-profits can and often do work at a higher level of success because family finding is a key focus of the organization. They often have staff with years of family finding experience as well as the budget and resources to handle the expected case load, a reality that many CPS offices recognize and want to take advantage of. On the other hand, Children's Rights Inc. Director Marcia Lowry stated during an interview with ABC News, "Most of the caseworkers in this country are inadequately trained, do not have the educational background to do the job, and have caseloads too high for any human being to handle, no matter how well-trained they are."
Many social workers handle fifty or more cases per month, an impossible task that could and often does crush the spirit. Janet Atkins, a California social worker for child-protection agencies added, "There's no way you can see 54 children once a month and still do the rest." Case workers struggle to "either give priority to seeing the families and children under their watch, or do the paperwork."
The outcome for a foster child can be swift and positive when CPS agencies and non-profits are working as a team. Find Families in Mexico has worked with several CPS offices where they took immediate action on the findings. In one foster child case, an adoption had been pending for more than a year. The CPS office took fast action on our findings, and within a couple of months, the adoption of the foster teenager was finalized.
This level of quick response is not always the case. While there is quite a bit of mutual give and take between county agencies and these non-profits, there are also areas where the process breaks down. One issue that we have come across time and again is that CPS, through staff or policy, can put a stop to the flow of information. Recently we spoke with a family finding specialist who had received contact information for both the mother and father of a foster child. Imagine our surprise when the specialist said there was a delay in CPS contacting the parents. Even though the family finding specialist had successfully delivered contact information, there was no mechanism in place to move the process forward until the case worker took action.
We have seen delays in action by as much as three months once results have been delivered. More disturbing is that in other cases there was no response from case workers after they had submitted an inquiry for family finding in a foster child case. Many of these cases could have resulted in locating a foster child’s family members, but without the involvement of CPS staff members who possess the information, there is very little that a non-profit can do to push a case forward.
Family finding specialists have confided to me that they would have pushed for more action or to authorize greater due diligence but that someone in CPS, usually management, had nixed the idea. Once again, the foster child suffers because of procedural ineffectiveness. This imbalance of power is damaging and counterproductive.
In other cases, the non-profit must wait for a response from the case worker for additional information. This extra layer can put a case on hold for weeks. Within many CPS offices there are case workers who are only given 30 days to handle a case. Once that period has expired, the case is then passed on, another breakdown with a seriously negative outcome.
A sad example occurred when a non-profit was working on a case for Texas CPS. The case required more than 30 days of research so the case was to be passed on to someone else within CPS. When the non-profit asked for an extension that would have helped to ensure a successful outcome, the social worker explained he no longer was in charge of the case and had no idea who ended up with the case file. It essentially disappeared, and with it, most likely, did any chance to identify and locate the relatives for that particular foster child.
Whether we are talking about case workers who try to handle an impossible number of cases or ineffective procedures that need to be streamlined, the burden of performance falls on foster care management. Some argue that because foster care is handled by government agencies, they somehow are inferior and that employees have a lower performance bar. This is only true if we accept these lower standards as reality - an erroneous perception that creates one of the biggest challenges to improving the foster care system.
One of this year’s CPS goals needs to be a focus on incremental changes to improve the lives of foster children. The processes in place at this time have been condemned by those outside and within the system as broken. Implementing more effective procedures instead of pointing fingers will ensure that foster children spend the least amount of time possible in the system.
Family finding is one of those critically important processes. Those agencies that have contracted out their family finding process want to leverage the non-profit to do the work in which they specialize. If management will step up, this time next year foster care agencies will be able to truly celebrate their successes. Foster children deserve so much better.