Foster Children Family Finding Revisited

This year has seen a series of terrible tragedies with a worldwide pandemic that has deeply impacted many economies around the world. In the U.S., foster care and the well-being of foster children are at serious risk as deep cuts to child and family programs are on the chopping block. Some may regard this as one of the worst economic years in decades and see no positive options. 

That doesn’t have to be the case with foster care.  Foster care already has a process called family finding that can allow foster children to be cared for and the dedicated social workers who work on their behalf to give these kids a better, brighter future. Studies have revealed that performing family finding for just a few dozen foster children and reuniting them with their families could save a county roughly $225,000 annually.

States are reeling from massive losses in tax revenue from months of business shutdowns.  Stay-at-home practices by millions of their citizens will be reflected in next year’s budgets as states examine areas where cuts can or even must be made in public services. Unfortunately, some states, such as Illinois, had just returned to a level of strong foster care funding after years of minimal investment due to a lack of sufficient state revenue.   

While cutting budgets for foster care programs may seem inevitable, family finding could provide exactly what is needed to allow agencies to maintain or even improve their ability to provide services that give each child the best outcome possible at a savings, as we have mentioned, to the government.

“Family finding” is a social service and the governmental term for the activity of identifying, locating and notifying adult family members that their related child is in foster care. Federal and many state laws mandate that thorough efforts are executed to locate family members of foster kids.  This is done 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 happens with many procedures across industries, family finding isn’t always embraced or executed at a high level of proficiency. When performed well, foster children are reunited with family members, getting them out of the system and into stable, loving homes. The more children who can be placed with relatives, the more time, effort and money can be directed to those children who have no family or who need medical and psychological treatment and care.

The family finding concept was conceived and developed by Kevin Campbell in the early 1990s. Yet nearly 30 years later, no national standard exists for family finding. Some counties across the country don’t even have a formal family finding program or unit. Years ago, Forever Homes for Foster Kids did market research and found that in California, many foster care agencies did not even recognize the term “family finding.” At best it was considered some sort of activity that unknown caseworkers performed in an area hidden from the rest of foster care. Only just recently, a staff member in Florida shared that she had a similar experience when she researched her state’s county agencies about their family finding program.

Another challenge for foster care agencies is that family finding is not usually part of the curriculum for a Master of Social Work, MSW. The prestigious Columbia University is one of many that has a well-developed master’s program yet has no course work on family finding. UC Davis had a seminar years ago with a focus on family finding, but one seminar is far from providing a solid understanding of the merits of this important process. 

Family finding is often a straight forward process for foster care agencies. A social worker goes to a computer, pulls up a database such as Intelius or LexisNexis, and in a matter of minutes, they can locate dozens of a foster child’s relatives living in the U.S. While some cases do require more diligence, agencies with a defined process in place can expect a success rate of 80-85% of finding family members. 

The costs of family finding are minimal compared to the phenomenal operational costs of a group home that can reach more than $90,000 a year per child. If just 12 such foster children were reunited with a relative due to family finding, a California county could save nearly $1 million a year. Those savings could then be allocated for advanced family finding training for social workers to increase the success of this process. 

Other areas could also receive benefits from these savings as foster parent recruitment and/or retention is always a challenge for foster care agencies. If more staff were employed, then the number of caseloads per social worker could be decreased leading to more time to visit foster children and to ensure their well-being. 

International family finding is also available to agencies who have children whose relatives are still living in countries in Latin America such as Mexico, El Salvador and Argentina. For 25 years, Forever Homes for Foster Kids has been successfully locating parents, grandparents and other adult relatives for foster care agencies across the U.S. The charity has performed family finding for non-profits such as the YMCA and Casey Family Programs as well as for various offices of National CASA.  

Some adoptions can get held up for many months or more than a year because the Court wants to ensure that proper due diligence is performed to locate a child’s parent. Termination of parental rights, TPR, may be needed so that the way is clear for a foster child to be adopted. Thorough family finding will either locate the parent, who can then decide to be a part of the child’s life or to give up their rights, or not find the person. In those cases where the person cannot be found and based on a sound report, most judges will rule for the agency to begin the TPR process. The most likely outcome is that the foster child will have the forever home they have wanted.

Bottom line: Thousands of children can be helped by family finding. These foster kids can have a better, brighter future with a loving family. Foster care agencies can save precious time, energy and money by putting a renewed focus on performing family finding as well as providing training and resources so that social workers can execute this process at a higher level of expertise. Family finding is a win-win for all concerned especially now so that today’s foster children can have the best outcome possible. They deserve it.