In past articles I’ve written about the procedural aspects and financial benefits of family finding as well as the legal mandate for foster care agencies to perform this due diligence. Now it's time to put faces to this process. Here are a few stories that show how family finding can change the life of a foster child giving them a better, brighter future.
Let’s take the case that Child Protective Services (CPS) in Pennsylvania had involving three siblings, all under the age of twelve. Their father had left the U.S. and returned to Mexico. It’s an enormous challenge to find foster parents willing to take in multiple children. The importance of keeping siblings together cannot be overstated. The Child Welfare Information Gateway’s 2013 white paper, “Sibling Issues in Foster Care and Adoption,” reported that for a child “being with their siblings can enhance their sense of safety and well-being and provide natural, mutual support. This benefit is in contrast to the traumatic consequences of separation, which may include additional loss, grief, and anxiety over their siblings’ well-being.”
Our organization has worked several cases where one sibling had already aged out, leaving another behind. Case workers have shared with us how the remaining sibling will suffer severe bouts of depression and trauma, not only because they were alone, but because they were so stressed with worry and fear that their older sibling, now on their own, might be killed out in the city.
In this case, the agency was able to provide the names of a few family members believed to be living in Mexico. The serious challenge to finding these relatives was that the “cities” were really villages with no telephone service or electronic means to locate or contact residents. Finding a way to reach people in such communities can be quite a challenge because people live miles apart or on isolated ranches. Government records that could help in locating residents of these tiny villages are not computerized, and often stored in boxes in regional administrative offices or warehouses hundreds of miles away. Despite these limitations, our organization coordinated efforts for an official to travel to two remote areas in the region. One trip resulted in locating the grandfather and an aunt of these foster kids.
The children's case worker updated us saying, "We never imagined that the news would get better, but it did. We have since learned that there are family members living in the northeast USA. These children may very well end up in a permanent home with one of their relatives. We simply wouldn't have these family connections in both Mexico and the U.S. without your expertise. Your organization has been a blessing in disguise for these young foster children and our agency." Indeed, a successful family finding allowed for all three siblings to be placed with one of their U.S. relatives soon afterward.
Despite the primary goal of uniting a child with a family member, this outcome may not always be possible. However, successful family finding can open other doors that benefit a foster child. Jarett Wilkins is the organizer of the 2016 Forever Family Walk, a 30-state event raising awareness for foster children. He wrote, "While I understand that the term ‘Forever Family’ refers to a family setting, I believe that it is also very important to show that Forever Family must extend beyond the family ties.”
One case we handled involved CPS where they had both a foster youth, Talia, and her baby daughter under their care. The mother and father lived in Mexico so CPS contacted us for help. We found both parents. The father was very excited because the mother, his former wife, had kidnapped his daughter and taken her to another state in Mexico. He hadn't seen or heard from his daughter since she was two years old. However, he lived in a very isolated area in the state where there was no telephone or cell phone service. As much as he may have wanted to reunite with his daughter, the lack of communication systems did not allow for him to submit the required documents that CPS mandates for a relative placement.
When contacted, the mother exhibited little interest in reuniting with her daughter. In the meantime, CPS had learned from the foster child that the mother had, at the very least, turned a blind eye to the long term sexual abuse that her husband, Talia’s step-father, had committed against her. This abuse was the motivation for Talia to run away from home in the first place.
As Wilkins commented, there are other types of "families." Adoptive parents often provide the love, care and stability of a family that a foster child needs and deserves. Talia and her baby had already been placed with foster parents who were eager to adopt. However, the adoption had been stalled for several months because the Court wanted to ensure that sufficient efforts had been made to locate and notify Talia’s parents. Even though the family finding was successful, based on the case notes, the court ruled for the adoption to move forward. Talia and her baby were adopted within months by their foster parents.
Similar to this adoption, thousands of others are often delayed for months, if not years. Studies on the judiciary show that most judges are very reluctant to terminate parental rights unless there is documentation showing that due diligence has been executed to locate and notify a foster kid's parents. Family finding reports can and do open the way for judges to rule in favor of a termination of parental rights (TPR) putting a foster youth on a faster path toward adoption.
Family finding is not limited to only executing a relative search for children in the foster care system. Year after year, tens of thousands of foster teenagers age out of the system with little or no connections to their families. As these former foster youths become older, many will arrive at a point in their lives where they are almost compelled to find a birth parent. Case in point: we received an email from Jim, a U.S. soldier stationed in Iraq who contacted us about his wife. Jim wrote that Sara and her mother "were separated in L.A. about seven years ago. Sara, who was 15 at the time, was put into foster care. Her mother and younger half brother and sister went back to Mexico." Sara spent the next two and a half years in California foster care until she aged out at 18, alone with no family living in the U.S.
Despite being half a world away fighting in a war, Jim was trying to help his wife to find her birth mother. Fortunately, Jim had the complete name of his wife’s mother and the city and state in Mexico where she had been living. After a few weeks, we identified an aunt, and several days later Sara was in contact with her mother and half-siblings. “Thanks to your information, my wife was able to talk with her mother after being apart for seven years. A family has been reunited. Thank you again and God bless.”
Family finding has the ability to completely change a foster child’s life. Three siblings are now able to grow up together because their birth father and other relatives were located. Talia was adopted by a loving couple and spared the emotional trauma of being returned to share a home with a convicted child molester. Sara, abandoned in a country with no relatives, was reunited with her mother and siblings.
No matter the outcome of family finding, this due diligence delivers positive, life changing benefits to foster children and should be embraced by every foster care agency. Not placing a high importance on locating relatives does a grave disservice to foster youth. They deserve our best effort because at the end of the day, we are all, hopefully, doing it for the children.