Our Responsibility to Change the Course of Events for Children Through Family Finding

Kelly BeckKelly Beck, Attorney, Seneca Center for Children and Families, CA

Summary: This article provides judicial officers, CASA volunteers and other stakeholders with a quick reference on some of the many benefits of family finding, an understanding of how everyone has an important role, and how we can participate in all aspects of family finding.


“Kinship care helped me stay connected to my son.”[1]

What if we had the ability to keep or reconnect youth with their existing or potential family support network prior to or immediately upon removal? What if we had the ability to identify and locate 20–30 relatives within minutes, thus preventing removal or preventing multiple placements? We can—and we do![2]

The family finding model[3] is one of the most effective strategies designed to embrace all potential family members, not just those who are immediately in front of us. It is a model that is continually evolving due to the fast progression of modern technology, research, pilot projects and successful intervention in the field. Family finding is a process that begins at the moment the child welfare worker knocks on the front door and continues until the child is returned home with parent(s), caregivers, relatives or non-related, lifelong, supportive family. It is a process that allows us to continue to build upon the child’s natural, life-long family support network. Its goal is to promote successful outcomes for youth.

The family finding model reminds us to ask youth, parents, and every family member, including the father and his relatives, probing questions such as: “How can you support or share knowledge about the family that is helpful to these children?”

This brief article is written to provide judicial officers, CASA volunteers and other stakeholders with a quick reference on some of the many benefits of the family finding model, an understanding of how everyone has an important role and how we can participate in all aspects of family finding.

Fostering Connections—Notice Requirements

The Fostering Connections Act[4] mandates that the “state” (i.e., agency) identify, locate and provide notice to family members (up to the third degree or fifth degree, depending upon your state’s definition of “relatives”) within 30 days of removal from the custody of the parent(s), the only exception being a situation where there is a family or domestic violence issue. The question then becomes:  “If we are required to look for family in every situation, are we actually doing this?” If yours is like many jurisdictions across the country, the answer is “Probably not.” 

Unfortunately, one of our greatest barriers as professionals continues to be our tendency to make assumptions about family.[5] Some other challenges we continue to face are: 

  • The common belief that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”
  • Assumptions that teens are not adoptable, so why look?
  • Workers caught in mindset of preparing for independent living/emancipation
  • Unresolved grief and loss issues for youth
  • Asking family members to assume placement rather than to be a support option
  • Ruling out family members before we have a conversation with them

Improved Outcomes for Families and Children

There are nearly 6 million children living in homes where  relatives also live (that is 1 out of 12). Of those 6 million children, 2.5 million children are living in households without any parents present, primarily being raised by grandparents and the number is expected to rise.[6] Relatives do typically step in and take care of and support their family members when asked. It is our responsibility to ensure they are located and engaged at the earliest possible opportunity.[7] 

Additionally, many fathers do have relationships with their children, even those we report “absent.”[8] Nonetheless, we continue the practice of excluding fathers and paternal relatives and even misuse our own identifiers, such as “non-custodial”[9] and “nonresident” or we include petition allegations of “abandonment,” when in fact, we haven’t conducted further inquiry and are basing this conclusion on statements from others. Thus, we all too often truly fail to conduct our initial mandates of due diligence to identify, locate and engage fathers and their family. 

You age out of a system, but you don’t age out of a family.”[10]

Implementation of the family finding model not only improves the probable placement resources for children and youth, it also improves many other potential outcomes, including:  

  • Reducing the stigma and trauma of separation[11]
  • Developing a sense of belonging or family connectedness
  • Continuing connections and facilitating placement with siblings
  • Maintaining family cultural traditions
  • Creating stability in placement
  • Reducing behavioral, educational and mental health problems[12]
  • Offering a safe or possibly even safer environment than children placed with non-relative foster families;
  • Maintaining community connections
  • Creating connections with relatives, who are frequently willing to adopt or become permanent guardians

Likewise, family finding can support and reinforce many of our other mandates and efforts, such as: 

  • Keeping children from coming into care[13]
  • Increasing the likelihood of reunification with parents: Parents are successful at reunification when the family is available for support and natural support systems are intact.
  • Getting children out of foster care sooner: Children may exit foster care or achieve permanency sooner when placed with relative[14]
  • Ensuring visitation: Relatives can support the youth and family by providing supervision and transport for parents, other relatives and siblings[15]
  • Maintaining sibling contact and same placement options
  • Concurrent planning, with several back-up plans and supports, rather than the traditional single option other than reunification

Here is what we can do.

“Reestablishing family connections for teens before they exit out of care, no matter what age they are, is the strongest and most positive youth development program the child welfare system can offer…”[16]

We meet with youth, parents and caregivers initially and then again on a regular basis,[17] including court hearings. This is a prime opportunity to engage in a conversation about other family members, relationships and building a support network. Children know their family members’ names and sometimes where they are located (even out of the country), but we fail to ask. The average number of living relatives for each person is approximately 200.[18] It is incumbent upon us to ask, and to engage.

Whether you are the judicial officer monitoring due diligent efforts, a caseworker, attorney, CASA volunteer or other involved stakeholder, here are some of the questions we can ask the parents, youth, family and others: 

  • Who can we locate and what supports does this family need so the child does not need to be removed?
  • Who shares parenting?
  • Who does the family rely upon to pick up children from school in event of emergency?
  • What is the father’s relationship with the children?
  • What types of activities does Mom or Dad do with the child(ren)?
  • Asking every identified family member, including the child, “How big is your family?” Who has visited or who have you visited for Thanksgiving or birthday parties or holidays? 
  • Ask the father, “What types of activities do you do together with the kids?” 

As professionals within the child welfare community, we need to continuously ask ourselves, “What if we implement the family finding model at the earliest possible opportunity and we hold ourselves accountable in these efforts? The answer will always be, “We can do this in every situation and we do have the ability to change the course of events for each child, youth and family we meet.”  

Find more information on family finding and engagement, training and implementation opportunities at the Seneca Center website.  

[1] Author: Kevin Edwards, See Rise, June 2011, Featured Story, www.risemagazine.org

[2] See Internet Search Services such as: Seneca Center Search Services, identification and contact information for up to 30 possible relatives http://www.senecacenter.org

[3] See: National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness; www.senecacenter.org/familyconnectedness

Kevin Campbell, Six Steps to Finding Family

[4] Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoption Act of 2008, P.L. 110-351; 41 U.S.C. 671 (a)(29)

[5] Making the Case - Children’s Bureau (May 2010)

[6] Meeting the Unique Needs of a Growing Population, Child Trends, Kinship Adoption, April 2010

[7] See Legislative intent of FC

[8] See: What about the Dads? Child Welfare Agencies’ Efforts to Identify, Locate and Involve Nonresident Fathers, 2006, US Department of Health and Human Services

[9] See: California Agency Handbook definition of “Non-Custodial” …the parent of a child removed from home pursuant to W&I §361, with whom the minor was not residing at the time that the events or conditions arose that brought the minor within the provisions of W&I §300, who desires to assume custody of the minor…

[10] Donna Butts, Executive Director of Generations United, Kids are Waiting: Fix Foster Care now, Support Relatives in Providing Foster Care and Permanent Families for Children, 2007 The Pew Charitable Trusts www.kidsarewaiting.org

[11] See: Kinship Adoption, Meeting the Unique Needs of a Growing Population, Child Focus, April 2010

[12] For overview of benefits of kinship are, see: http://www.clasp.org/admin/site/publications/files/-347.pdf

[13] See: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, CCC Benchcard, www.NCJFCJ.org

[14] Allen, et al, State Kinship Care Policies for Children that Come to the Attention of Child Welfare Agencies, Child Trends, December 2008 and Support Relatives, note x.

[15] See: Wentz, Rose – Visitation – The Key to Children’s Safety, Permanency and Well-Being and Planned, Purposeful and Progressive Visits, www.wentztraining.comand National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections, www.nrcpfc.org.

[16] Avery, Rosemary, Examination of theory and promising practice for achieving permanency for teens before they age out of foster care, 2010

[17] See: Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-272); 42 U.S.C. §671 et seq. Reasonable Efforts Include:

    • Preserve and reunify families
    • Return home
    • Permanency Planning
    • Maintain sibling relationships/same placement  

[18] Campbell, Kevin, et al. “Lighting the Fire of Urgency: Families Lost and Found in America’s Child Welfare System.” Permanency Planning Today,   Newsletter of the National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning at Hunter College of Social Work, Fall 2003.

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