Finding lost family for waiting kids


Siobhan Rowe
Focus on Adoption magazine

When we say that children waiting to be adopted have "no family" it's rarely true. Most have family--we just haven't looked hard enough.

In the adoption world, we often state that children waiting to be adopted have “no family” and, therefore, need a new one.

Though they may indeed need a new family, in many cases there are relatives and friends that could be involved in the children’s lives, or could possibly adopt them, if only they could be located. Sometimes, lost relatives and friends aren’t even aware that a child is in foster care or that the child exists. An AFABC project that Michelle McBratney works on is proving this again and again. Michelle works on AFABC’s family finding program, one of a handful of similar projects started over the last couple of years in BC.

So near yet so far

When I spoke with Michelle, she had just finished looking for the family of a 19-year-old girl who had struggled in foster care all her life. Michelle discovered that all those years she actually had close relatives living in the same community. Now the young woman, who kept every single memento of her birth family in a tiny cardboard box, has scores of people she’s connected to and has regular contact with her formerly lost relatives.

Michelle has also worked with a young man who, as far as anyone knew, had hardly any family members. Michelle’s detective work has uncovered 100 people. The young man, who has also been in foster care for most of his life, may now be adopted by one of his aunts. Michelle also told me about one young woman who was reunited with her grandparents as a result of family finding. After her first meeting with them, she told her social worker, “It was the best moment of my entire life.”

"We have been half-hearted in our search for families for children in out-of-home care.
Our job as caretakers and overseers is to find that family and let them know that one of their relatives, a child, a member of their family, needs them.
After the State of Washington legislated social workers to ask about extended family at every stage of a child's case there was a two-fold increase in family placements, from 19% to 37%. Just by asking.
It is my dream that the expanded use of family finding will literally dry up the foster case system." -Remarks of Judge Leonard P. Edwards of the Superior Court of Santa Clara, California

Though family finding can be time consuming, it’s not particularly complicated. Michelle mines children’s files for names, places, and dates and then uses simple tools like Facebook, Google, 411 enquiries, the phone book, and cold-calling, to uncover people connected to the kids she is trying to help. Though adoption might be the outcome of this work, it’s not necessarily the main goal. An important objective is to reconnect the kids with people in their close or extended family in the hope that they will enjoy some support as they grow up and also to provide children detached from family with much needed details of who their family is.

Michelle explains that the kids are usually ecstatic to be given birth family information and a genogram—a document that carefully details their family tree—because, for the first time, they see actual proof that they do belong somewhere. It’s both moving and frustrating to see some of the kids’ genograms before the family finding work and after it’s been done. What looks like a meager group of relatives and connections, often turns into a bounty of them. “I just finished working with some siblings who were about to leave care with no knowledge of their family. I was able to tell them a great deal of family history and let them know how many relatives they have now. I managed to find this out by accessing MCFD files that they will never be able to get hold of. At least now, they will leave foster care having all that information. Once they leave, it would be very difficult for them to find that information,” explains Michelle.

Shannon Woode, an MCFD social worker who also does family finding, agrees that such information is enormously important. “I’ve seen so much more success for children who have been helped to learn where they come from and about their family stories—it’s a truly healing process for them—it’s healing in ways that counselling and therapy can’t provide.”

What took so long?

As we’ve seen, family finding can produce remarkable results. What mars these happy endings is the fact that, though social workers try to locate family, this work is sometimes not done once the child initially enters foster care; and, once a child becomes a ward of the government, it’s often not done on an ongoing basis. Of course, it can be hard to gather information on birth and extended family—often birth parents have no contact with their family and sometimes they provide incorrect information. Though the reasons that this intensive family finding work is often not done in the first place are complex, there may be several other factors at work: perhaps, using the old adage the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, we write off birth families—as a source of help too quickly. Shannon Woode suggests that even though there might not be wellness in a child’s family at the time he or she is taken into foster care, a few years later things may have changed significantly and there may be family members who could look after a child. Often, by then, connections have been lost.

Maybe we also have had too narrow a vision of what family is—in western societies it is often seen as very immediate family, in other cultures, family is viewed far more widely and includes distant relatives and the child’s wider community. When we limit investigations of who could look after a child, maybe we’ve let that narrow vision restrict what we are looking for. It’s almost certain that social workers don’t have enough time to do this intensive family finding work.

What we do know, though, is that if family finding work is done straight way, it could have save many children from long stints in foster care, multiple moves, from an intense sense of loneliness, and from significant emotional damage.

Across the US

In the United States—the birthplace of family finding—federal legislation requires that within 30 days of a child entering foster care an intensive search must be done for close and extended family members.

Thankfully, in some regions of BC family finding is now being done and the results are just as encouraging. The Vancouver/Coastal region of the MCFD has embraced family finding and efforts are being made to ensure that such work is an ongoing and integral part of the process done once a child enters foster care.

Another AFABC family finding project funded by the Ministry for Children and Family Develop ment Interior region found between 35 and 159 additional family members for 18 children. Nine children were matched for adoption with one of the people located by the family finder and two more cases are likely to result in adoption. As mentioned above, adoption is not necessarily the desired outcome—finding connections is a large part of the program and a goal which was achieved for all the children. This family finding program has now ended because of funding cuts.

Over the last five years, AFABC has also been a centre for the Wonderful Wendy’s Kids program funded by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. This program uses intense search techniques, including family finding, to find permanent homes for waiting children. To date, over 50 children have been matched with families. As well as family finding, the Wendy’s program doesn’t just look for biological relatives. Anyone—teachers, coaches, family friends—who had a positive interest or involvement with the child at some point in his or her life is approached. Kirsty Stormer, a social worker for the program, describes how one little boy reacted when, for the first time, he was shown a photograph of his biological father and siblings. “His eyes were so wide, he couldn’t stop looking. ‘Are all those people really my family?’” he asked. Kirsty’s work revealed that though his file said the birth father was not suitable or interested in the little boy, this didn’t turn out to be the case. Work is now being done to reunite the formerly separated father and son.

Family finding is the result of the ease of finding people through the Internet and other technologies, changing attitudes towards birth families and, most importantly, growing evidence that children need to understand where they come from and to whom they belong—even when they can not live with them.