Fostering Connections—Family Finding Efforts: South Carolina GAL Program’s Experience

Louise Cooper, Director, South Carolina (Cass Elias McCarter) Guardian ad Litem Program

Summary: The author shares details of the South Carolina Guardian ad Litem Program’s successful partnership with the Department of Social Service to implement a grant-funded family finding program.

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A workshop on the family finding model that was presented April 2009 at the National CASA Conference in Atlanta listed the terrible outcomes that youth in foster care typically experience when they “age out” of foster care without safe, adult connections. The workshop highlighted the success of several projects that connected youth to biological or fictive kin. Family finding searches establish connections, not necessarily placements. The successful connection is one that will remain in the youth’s life as a stable and safe presence throughout adulthood.

The family finding model is a good fit for the South Carolina Guardian ad Litem Program. Volunteer GALs (commonly referred to as CASA volunteers) understand the family dynamics of abuse and neglect cases and are concerned about the future of children leaving care. The volunteer guardian ad litem pool represents a large workforce with an established interest in the work of connecting youth to relatives. The key in creating a system of family finding services was to earn the cooperation of the Department of Social Services (DSS), the custodial agency. The project would require DSS cooperation in order to make and sustain connections.

When federal grant money became available, South Carolina DSS asked that the guardian ad litem program collaborate to write a Fostering Connections to Success Act federal grant proposal. The three-year grant would include the family finding component, along with a family navigator project. The proposal called for two areas to pilot the family finding model, covering five and six counties respectively.

South Carolina received the grant in October 2009. Two family finding coordinators were hired for the grant-funded project, with the intention that they would coordinate volunteer search and connection activities throughout the state at the grant’s end. Training volunteers to conduct family finding activities in cooperation with DSS provides project sustainability.

Annie E. Casey Foundation staff trained GAL and DSS staff on the fundamentals of family search and engagement. Casey Family Services conducted a business-mapping process session to detail the steps for search and engagement. The mapping process was designed to ensure that the process could be clearly replicated. Key DSS and GAL staff attended and contributed.

The process is this: A referral for family finding  services is made to the Fostering Connections coordinator. The coordinator verifies that the referral fits the grant’s parameters: that the youth is 12–18 years of age and has two or fewer existing connections. The Fostering Connections coordinator contacts the DSS case worker or guardian ad litem, whichever is not the referring source, to make him or her aware of the referral. The coordinator begins to “mine” the file at each agency to look for connections that have been present in the child’s life in the past. Internet searches are conducted, as necessary. Once connections are identified, the team of the coordinator, the guardian ad litem volunteer, the GAL staff, and the DSS case worker confer to discuss the appropriateness of any connections identified. The team comes to consensus and preliminary contact is made. The child needs to be involved in the decision as to whether he or she wishes to make the connection. However, rather than create a disappointment for the youth, it is first established that the potential connection is willing to enter the process. The youth is then engaged. If the youth does not wish to see a connection, then the child’s wishes are honored.

Lessons have been learned in the first two years of the grant. The state office of DSS was enthusiastic about the process; the county DSS offices were often reluctant to participate. Referrals were scarce the first year. The second lesson was that the searches take a great deal more time than originally anticipated. The travel time required to conduct searches in several county locations has slowed connections. When new leadership at the state DSS made the referrals a priority, the influx of referrals overwhelmed the coordinators and required that volunteers be trained to assist the coordinators immediately rather than in the third year of the grant.

Altogether, 38 connections have been made. Although far below the goal set, these connections have created a working template for taking the family finding model statewide through the use of volunteer guardians ad litem who choose to be involved in this process. Over 60 GAL staff and volunteers have been trained to conduct searches around the state, and there is now an emphasis in volunteer pre-service training on maintaining the trail of family and fictive kin that will hopefully keep any of our youth from being in danger of aging out of the system alone.

 

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