Finding Families for Foster Kids

Finding Families for Foster Kids

Illustration of how Family Finding works for foster youth

(Illustration by Dylan B. Caleho)

Mirela Huber didn’t much like the young lady offering to help her.

“I thought she was kind of a ‘b’,” says Huber today. “She was talking to me like she knew me, and I was like, Woman, you don’t know me.”

The young lady Huber felt so put off by, Elizabeth Wendel, worked then as a case manager for Turning Points for Children, in the social and health service organization’s Family Finding unit. Youth taken into state foster care systems, cut off from their past lives, face a profound sense of disconnection and sadness in the care of strangers. Wendel’s job was to help connect young people like Huber to those who’d known and loved them throughout their lives.

Huber, for her part, figured she was beyond helping. Her mother, in Romania, put her up for adoption through an international agency when she was three years old. An American couple took her in before changing their minds three years later and putting her back up for adoption, a second profound disruption in a lifelong odyssey that finally placed her in the custody of Philadelphia’s foster care system.

Looking back over her life, Huber says she lived in more places than she can count, few of which ever really served as a home. “You’d be in some place that felt solid, and then I’d do something that would cause a problem, or [the foster family] would do something and I’d be moving again,” she says. “I know I had anger issues. I’d been through a lot of trauma.”

She’d sit, periodically, in a painful internal dialogue: Why would my mom do this to me? She didn’t love me.

Caseworkers in Philly had mentioned Family Finding to her before. But she blew it off. She’d finally agreed to give it a try in 2013, when she was about 20 years old and near aging out of the foster care system. But she wasn’t optimistic.

About 18 months later, however, she was on the phone, listening to her mother cry, “Mirela! Mirela!” Through her mother’s accent, she heard her own name—in the way her mother rolled the “r” at its heart—in an entirely new way. “It was beautiful,” she says.

She and her mother struck up a long-distance relationship. They spoke on the phone, frequently, through translators. “Everything,” says Huber, “just kind of calmed down. …She apologized. She told me she loved me all the time. She had put me up for adoption because she didn’t have money… and wanted me to have a successful life.”

Huber’s anger issues dissipated. She focused on the things she wanted from life. Today she is pursuing a master’s degree from Phoenix University in Clinical Psychology, and her story is emblematic, capturing the kind of healing the Family Finding program can bring.

Upon closer inspection, however, her story works more as a symbol of what could be than what is—because most youth in the Philadelphia foster care system, unlike Los Angeles and Lackawanna County, Pa., just don’t receive the same effort.

The best thing for children

Among social service professionals, Family Finding is represented most prominently by Kevin Campbell, a child welfare consultant who had observed that youth in foster care needed help that they weren’t getting.

“These young people are separated from parents, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, teachers—sometimes everyone they knew before,” says Campbell. “We now know that’s traumatic, and that has long-term, serious health effects.”

Campbell and colleagues in Washington state first launched their work in the late ‘90s, just as the child welfare field had begun to quantify the damage. In 1998, Mark Courtney, today a University of Chicago social work professor, issued the first in a series of landmark studies documenting the challenges facing many foster care alumni: high rates of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, periods of homelessness, depression and more.

Since then, research has piled up, causing the American Academy of Pediatrics to weigh in with policy recommendations declaring youth in foster care a special subset with its own unique healthcare needs, including physical conditions linked to stress, like asthma.

Being with kin, however, significantly reduces those risks. Just last year, a longitudinal study in the UK determined that people who spent time in out of home placements, or foster care, faced significant health effects 10 years later and into middle age. Being placed with kin cut those effects in half.

Beyond these poor outcomes, a new awareness has dawned that the child welfare system has morphed into a police-adjacent function that is hurting both kids and families. Media accounts generally refer to youth being taken into foster care for reasons of “abuse and neglect,” but a closer look at the statistics reveals that only about 15 percent of the country’s child removals stem from abuse. “Neglect,” further, is often just a damning word for poverty, with Black, Indigenous and in many cities Latinx families being disproportionately separated by a system that is punishing people for having too little money to support a middle-class lifestyle.

The result is that calls to “right size” the system sound across the nation, with goals set at reducing the population of kids in foster care by 50 percent or more, and Campbell has great scientific and political winds at his back. “The data is in and it’s clear,” he says. “The best thing for children is to stay with their families. If that cannot happen, the next best thing is to place them with kin. Out of home placement is a threat to a child’s mental, emotional and physical well-being.”

The family finding concept was first mandated by federal legislation in 2008, and a bill first passed in Pennsylvania in 2013 “to ensure that family finding occurs on an ongoing basis for all children entering the child welfare system” and “to promote the use of kinship care when it is necessary to remove a child” from their home. Over time, Finding has also become Campbell’s personal brand.

“These young people are separated from parents, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, teachers—sometimes everyone they knew before,” says Campbell. “We now know that’s traumatic, and that has long-term, serious health effects.”

As advocates go, he is formidable, speaking with a charismatic balance of calm and fire, never raising his voice even as he delivers statements that go off like bombs in the staid world of academia. “This system is broken,” he says, “and while it is not the intention of the professionals in the system, it’s hurting people.”

Research on the effectiveness of Campbell’s model has in fact been mixed, with some papers finding that the additional services yield no discernible results at all. A pivotal summary conducted by Child Trends, a leading non-partisan research organization, determined that a chief impediment to the success of the program is the fidelity with which it’s implemented.

In other words, some places take on Family Finding services without really doing the work. The reason for this might be described as custom—child welfare agencies simply aren’t used to doing it, a fact that in itself suggests a kind of failure in how the field has been set up.

“Philosophically, I am absolutely in agreement with Family Finding,” says Mark Courtney, the author of those landmark studies on foster alumni. “I think this is work that every child welfare agency ought to be doing, anyway.”

In Philadelphia, kids in the child welfare system can be served by family team meetings, which can include a larger circle than the child’s mother and father. But throughout the child welfare industry, the deep, persistent effort called for by Campbell hasn’t traditionally been made because caseworkers are usually overwhelmed by high caseloads and arduous jobs. Overtime is a constant, with workers spending long hours on the road, often traveling to families’ homes when most city employees are home eating dinner.

And of course, the decisions they make amount to quasi law enforcement functions: is this child being abused or at risk of it? In this context, every subsequent decision appears less important. And Finding laws or not, the nature of the job hasn’t changed—pushing the forging of connections with blood family or loved ones for the child some way down the list.

“Family,” in Campbell’s model, includes blood relatives, family friends and anyone else, like coaches, teachers or neighbors, who knew the child previously. The goal was to find 40 such people (now set at 65), using people finding tools that have only grown in sophistication with the pace of technology. Cambell has expanded his Finding model to seven steps, including reaching out to each contact, involving as many of them as possible in planning, evaluating and decision making regarding the child, and providing follow-up supports to help these relationships grow and persist.

Ideally, says Campbell, Family Finding will help kids in the system get out, fast, and into safe homes with people they already know, perhaps reuniting them with their parents. If used at the inception of a case, his model can sometimes prevent youth from entering state custody at all. But even without these dramatic outcomes, youth in foster care can be enabled to maintain caring relationships with one or more people who knew them earlier in life, perhaps enjoying a regular set of phone calls, or visits. One caring adult might sound like a meager outcome, but Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child has found that people who enjoy good health after childhood trauma enjoyed at least one such relationship.

“Family Finding is about creating permanency,” says Campbell, “and that could be legal permanency in terms of where the child lives, or relational and emotional permanency, in terms of who the child has available for support.”

Of the nearly 5,000 youth in city foster care, most receive finding services from their permanent case manager. More than 1,000 of those youth, however, are referred to either Turning Points, which has been conducting Family Finding for about 10 years, or A Second Chance, which was recently added as a finding provider.

Pennsylvania, through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), is also promoting Finding as a key pillar of its Family Engagement Initiative—an attempt to better incorporate existing families into child welfare work. Begun in May 2017, FEI has been expanded into 15 of the state’s 67 counties, with Philadelphia among the most recent to sign on.

“Even small contacts in the life of a child are really important,” says GrowMiller, “and you can see the effect it has on them when they know the people they loved, still love them.”

Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the family advocacy unit at Community Legal Services, speaks highly of Campbell, and says she’s “seen great things so far” from FEI, which is expected to be up and running in all of Pennsylvania’s family courts in the coming months, creating an environment where every layer of the system, including the judges, are supposed to be focused on strategies to engage and preserve families.

It isn’t possible, however, to get beyond anecdotes and gauge whether either effort is actually working.

The state AOPC, through a spokesperson, has declined to comment on any results they might be seeing, in terms of increased reunifications or placements of youth with kin. And Philadelphia admitted that, despite spending more than $1.4 million in fiscal year 2021 on the program, it doesn’t have any data related to Family Finding at all.

“We don’t have numbers on that,” replied a DHS spokesperson, when asked for data. “We haven’t been tracking it.”

The lack of follow-up suggests Philadelphia might be among those agencies that is running a kind of Family Finding light—following the law mandating that Finding services be provided without even bothering to keep track of whether the program is working, let alone becoming zealous about what the program can do.

“It’s shocking,” says City Councilmember David Oh, who has been co-chairing a special committee looking at DHS’s child removal policies. “There should be—because these are public funds—an accounting, and a level of transparency. We’re spending a good amount of money for a program and we don’t know how it’s doing. It’s unacceptable.”

“As a City, we’ve got to do a better job when it comes to our young people,” says Councilmember Isaiah Thomas. “Without this crucial data, we’re not using every tool possible to bring happiness and comfort to these vulnerable young people.”

Philly’s flawed approach

Anthony entered the foster care system at 16 years old, along with six brothers and sisters, and met with a Family Finding worker after he was in a foster placement for a month or two. Enthusiastic, he shared the names of perhaps eight people, including a maternal aunt in Orlando, Florida, and an elderly neighbor, with whom his family felt close.

His Finding caseworker listened and said she’d get to work on it. Anthony, who asked that only his first name be used to preserve his anonymity, felt a swelling sense of hope. Then, nothing happened. No connections were made for him at all.

Anthony was upset, wondering why he wasn’t put in touch with his contacts. But later, when he was in a foster home with his own phone, he called his neighbor and aunt. Both reported that they had received a call from Family Finding. Both had indicated they wanted to be involved. The neighbor even said that she was willing to take in the whole family. But neither of them heard anything back.

“My aunt provides me with financial and emotional support now,” says Anthony, 24. “So I know she would have helped.”

The failure to help Anthony might illuminate a flaw of implementation found by the analysts at Child Trends. Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services contracts with outside agencies to provide Family Finding services for a subset of cases. Specialized, finding caseworkers conduct intensive background research to collect possible family and life connections, meet with the youth for additional guidance and endeavor to make contact with as many people in the youth’s life as possible.

Campbell calls Philadelphia’s model a “delegated design,” in which these outside agency workers hand off the case file to the child’s permanent manager, typically at 60 days, who are supposed to vet the connections and make them happen and persist. This shift, found Child Trends, can stymie progress, as the primary case manager’s other responsibilities might take precedence, or they may simply not be as invested in the program.

Across the country, Los Angeles appears to be carrying out the entire implementation process more effectively, tracking results to make sure the program is working for youth like Anthony, and mounting Finding efforts from the same office that oversees the youth’s cases.

Michael Nash, director of Los Angeles’s office of child protection, has been at the forefront of incorporating Family Finding services there. As former presiding judge of L.A. County’s Juvenile Court, Nash credits the Finding model with bringing some much-needed change to Los Angeles.

Initially, Los Angeles deployed what Nash referred to as a “cold case concept.” Older youth, with time in the system, received this additional layer of service. The cold case program was successful in its own way, finding supportive people for youth in about 50 percent of cases. Nash and Campbell, however, weren’t satisfied. “I kept saying, We need to move this to the front end of the system,” says Nash, placing kids with or linking them to family or friends, as fast as possible.

The benefits Nash saw included avoiding the trauma of separation and loneliness for youth and “humongous legal battles,” in which family members show up late in the process and fight for custody. Los Angeles added these additional front end services, serving half the county with them in a pilot program costing $14 million. Federal data reveals kinship placements only occur in about a third of dependency cases. Los Angeles already outdid those numbers, but the research agency Child Trends found that “up front” Family Finding produced a notable improvement. Offices with up-front finding services put almost 70 percent of newly placed children in care with kin by 12 to 15 months after removal, showing what can be achieved with prolonged, intensive effort.

“Showing improvements you can see is difficult in child welfare,” says Karin Malm, one of the authors of that study. “So this improvement in Los Angeles is, to me, impressive.”

Los Angeles, says Campbell, is at the forefront of Finding work because they utilize what he refers to as an “embedded design,” in which the unit that carries out the initial stages of Finding work is part of the same agency that follows up. This ongoing, organic relationship between the person doing the finding work and the person managing the child’s case leads to greater commitment and follow-up, as the two workers see each other naturally, identify as the same team, and easily meet to discuss progress.

Nash, in Los Angeles, admits that Finding requires, “Constant attention. Asking, Who was found? Who wanted contact? Did they get it? Why not?

“As a City, we’ve got to do a better job when it comes to our young people,” says Councilmember Isaiah Thomas. “Without this crucial data, we’re not using every tool possible to bring happiness and comfort to these vulnerable young people.”

But Los Angeles’s success suggests it can be done. And, closer to home, little Lackawanna County in Central Pa. has also achieved a dramatic result—again employing Finding in its embedded form. “We’ve been employing Family Finding service here for many, many years,” says William Browning, executive director of Lackawanna’s Department of Human Services. “We’ve undergone a big culture change, from the kind of quasi law enforcement role that lots of child protection agencies started playing around the country, to doing real social service work again.”

Browning says that they are only able to provide the full service to about 20 percent of their caseload, but of those youth, 60 percent remain with their families, and of the remainder who do undergo removal 80 percent are placed with kin. The work has also helped set the tone for the entire office, and over the last 10 years the total number of Lackawanna youth in foster care placement has been cut by 56 percent, from more than 400 youth to 177 at last count.

“When it’s truly embedded,” says Campbell, “an agency does not look at it as an intervention or an extra. Instead, working with families is just what we do. It is a culture change, and it occurs at every layer in the system, including the child welfare agencies and the courts and judges.”

For Anthony, there was evidently no follow through at all. He was never even told, he says, that his regular case manager would ultimately be responsible for making his connections with family happen.

“I think the idea of Family Finding is great,” he says. “But it didn’t work for me.”

Trending in the right direction

Meetings of the Child Welfare Advisory Board here in Philadelphia, which was formed to foster cooperation and gather advice from stakeholders, consistently strike a reformist note these days, with DHS Commissioner Kimberly Ali talking enthusiastically about the agency’s efforts to “right size” the system and safely reduce the number of youth in foster care.

In an interview this July, DHS Operations Director for Child and Family Services Staci Morgan Boyd extolled the virtues of the state court’s Family Engagement Initiative, which will be active in all family courts by December, while acknowledging that Finding will be focused mostly on older youth in care—an effort that will fall short of the services provided in Los Angeles.

“Family Engagement is the name of the game,” she said in a Zoom interview. “How well we interact with the family and all of the people that the family identifies as their circle of affection, their village, their support system.”

“When it’s truly embedded,” says Campbell, “an agency does not look at it as an intervention or an extra. Instead, working with families is just what we do. It is a culture change, and it occurs at every layer in the system, including the child welfare agencies and the courts and judges.”

In broad statistical terms, Philadelphia is trending in the right direction, with DHS data stating in their most recent budget presentation that the total number of youth in foster care fell between June 2017 and this summer by about 29 percent without compromising safety. The city has also increased its use of kinship care, locating over half of Philly’s foster care placements with kin.

Campbell cites these statistics as reason for optimism, though of course without data tracking it’s impossible to say what Finding has accomplished here.

Staff at Turning Points were able to shed a bit more light on the program’s workings than the city. They found an average of 35 family members per case, for instance, with 10 percent of those identified agreeing to play some supportive role for the child. A Second Chance failed to respond to requests for interviews. And so the statistics pretty much end there.

Do Philly youth in Family Finding enjoy any better outcomes in terms of landing in kinship care, or reunifications? Turning Points provided no numbers on any longer-term results, stating in an email that after the hand off, the two follow-ups they’re scheduled to conduct with the youth’s regular caseworkers at three months and one year don’t reliably yield enough information to provide an accurate picture.

A deputy CEO at Turning Points, David Fair, says they spoke with DHS numerous times about allowing them deeper, longer involvement in cases and the ability to track long-term outcomes themselves. But DHS never took them up on it.

It is also worth noting that Huber’s emblematic connection with her mom in Romania only occurred because the Turning Points case worker refused to let go of the case after 60 days.

The Turning Points staff do have numerous anecdotes of success stories, including youth who were adopted by kin or simply, as Turning Points’ senior director of Family Services Lou GrowMiller puts it, “blossomed” right before their eyes because they were put back in contact with the people they knew and loved before. “Even small contacts in the life of a child are really important,” says GrowMiller, “and you can see the effect it has on them when they know the people they loved, still love them.”

Lizmarlene Lugo, a Turning Points case manager tells one story about meeting with a very young child who could remember nothing more of a particular lady he felt close to than the meatballs she cooked. The child’s mom was deceased. But from that single clue, Lugo set to work, using social media to find relatives and old neighbors and ask questions till the lady was identified, located and wound up adopting the child and his sibling.

“These kinds of miracles do happen,” says Lugo.

Broke in Philly Our Kids logo

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story, which originally appeared in The Philadelphia Citizen, is part of the “Our Kids” reporting project. Our Kids is a project of the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative that examines the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia’s foster care system.

Steve Volk is an investigative solutions reporter with Resolve Philly, a nonprofit journalism organization committed to collaboration, equity, and community voices and solutions. His work has appeared in Philadelphia, Discover and the Washington Post Sunday magazine.

Tags: philadelphiafoster systemour kids

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