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Beyond the search: Supporting potential families after family-finding efforts

Teenage girl and mother sitting on steps talking.
Teenage girl and mother sitting on steps talking.

Child welfare systems are increasingly using family finding to achieve permanency for children in foster care and to connect them to people who care about them. Family finding—searching for relatives and other adults with whom the child is already connected—is especially important as we seek permanent placements for older youth, as these young people are more likely to find permanency with people they know.

As many professionals take on family finding, it’s critically important to have strong approaches to engaging and supporting possible family connections after you find them. The initial work to find possible family members and other connections is just the tip of the iceberg. Ongoing support needs to be prioritized and given sufficient time and effort. 

Jennifer Townsend, director of recruitment programs at FosterAdopt Connect says: “In general, I’d say that one-third of our work is finding a person who is willing and able. The other two-thirds is developing a relationship with them and delivering the support and information that gets them to placement.”

Taking a thoughtful approach to engaging and supporting each person you connect with is crucial to helping them explore ways they may be able to support the child. Each person will have unique support needs, but those needs tend to fall into three categories: emotional support, logistical support, and specific support services. 

Emotional support

As you seek connections for a child, it’s important to remember that the people you find never asked to be put in this situation. For many people, being contacted by a child welfare agency is very uncomfortable—and potentially threatening. This may be especially true for marginalized communities, such as Black, Latinx, or Indigenous communities, who have been historically harmed by our child welfare systems and other government agencies. People may be angry with you or wary of talking to you, especially during the initial stages of contact when they don’t understand your reason for contacting them or what you may do with information you get.  

As people learn more about the child’s life experiences and their stay in foster care, more big emotions may come up. Some family members may feel anger or guilt about the child’s abuse or neglect experiences, or frustration that they weren’t contacted sooner by the agency or by other family members. As you ask them about the role that they can play in the child’s life, including if they can offer permanency, people may struggle with guilt around their hesitancy to engage, or fear about what this new development means for their family’s future. 

People’s emotional expressions and experiences will vary widely. Regardless, it’s important that you be ready to offer your support as they navigate complex emotions. To do this well, try the following:

  • Be patient. Some people will need more time and assistance in understanding the role of the child welfare system and why you are reaching out to them. This is even more important as people navigate complex emotions. You may need to reach out to them several times before they are willing to talk with you about what they can provide and any other connections they know about. Remember that relationship-building takes time, especially when emotions are running high. 
  • Be ready and available when they are. When they are ready to talk with you, be flexible about where, how, and when you talk. Try to be available to meet with them for an extended period of time if they need it. Also, meet them where they are emotionally. Some people may need to process their big emotions with you, others may not. Remember that you are seeking to build a relationship that will be a long-term connection for this child. This will take time, and it will be different for each individual. 
  • Show appreciation. Engage the person with genuine appreciation for any help they can offer. You can show appreciation by offering excellent customer service, showing up with a friendly demeanor, taking their phone calls, and answering their questions promptly. Showing appreciation like this could be the difference between engaging a connection and losing a potential placement for the child. 
  • Normalize complex emotional reactions. People process emotions differently. Some are comfortable showing their emotions, while others may feel the need to disengage if they get emotional. Be prepared to help them normalize feeling many emotions at once. Tell them that there is no right or wrong way to feel as they come to terms with what’s happening and what’s being asked of them. Give them examples of how other people have reacted so that they don’t feel ashamed of their reaction. 
  • Be flexible. Not every family member is willing or able to provide a home for a child. Welcome all types of participation from the people you find, and give them time to decide what role they will play in the child’s life.
  • Be honest and keep your promises. It’s important to provide clear and honest information, even when it’s something that may be hard to hear. If you tell someone that they would be the perfect permanency option for this child, and something in their background check disqualifies them, they will feel betrayed and are less likely to offer help engaging other family members. 
  • Provide gentle encouragement when discussing other possible connections. Some people may be reluctant to give you names or contact information of others who may be available for support. They may be worried about strained relationships, question whether someone would be a good fit for placement, or have concerns about involving other parts of the extended family. In your conversations, focus on how it helps the child when you build a bigger network. Remind them that it opens the door to other supportive connections for the child. Remember that each family is unique, family dynamics are complicated, and everyone’s concerns are valid.  

Logistical support

As you find people who may be able to provide permanency for the child, they are likely to need logistical support to help them navigate the child welfare system, understand the child’s needs, and make a decision that could change their life. They will need your agency’s support. 

  • Anticipate questions and be ready with answers. Work with other staff to develop a list of frequently asked questions and answers. Share lessons learned by other relative caregivers, and let them know that they are not alone in this experience. Consider framing your information this way: “It’s common for people in your position to wonder about….” This helps them know that it’s normal to have questions.
  • Get creative in discussing the role they could play in the child’s life. It can be hard for someone to envision their future role. You can help by offering suggestions of how they could stay connected to the child and offer support. You could offer options like being a mentor, a respite provider, or a buddy to do particular hobbies, sports, or activities. Help them brainstorm things they previously enjoyed doing with the child or common interests they could explore. Can they teach the youth a skill, like cooking, woodworking, or how to change a tire? Be encouraging and enthusiastic about any step they are willing to take. But never pressure anyone into providing permanency. This needs to be their decision. 
  • Provide service navigation. Look for ways that you can make it easier for the person to navigate the system. Can you tell them how it works or connect them with another relative caregiver for information and support? Can you help them get their fingerprinting done for their background check? Can you pick them up to bring them to the next permanency planning meeting or to court? 
  • Remove barriers to permanency. Many agencies engaged in family finding have funding set aside to help families address logistical barriers families face as they go through the approval process. This may mean buying smaller things, like locks for the medicine cabinet or bedroom furniture, or doing larger things, like helping with the purchase of a car or a home expansion. If a connection is willing and able to provide permanency for the child, it’s important to address these logistical hurdles. In addition, many jurisdictions have waivers to help relatives address non-safety related barriers to home study approval. For example, occupancy waivers allow more children to be placed in a home than is allowed in a non-relative home. Take a look at your jurisdiction’s approval criteria and learn about what waivers may be available. Talk with agency leaders about the barriers these families often experience to see if there are other ways your agency could assist. 
  • Provide support around background checks. It’s very important that you be proactive in addressing background checks with people you’ve identified through family finding. The need for background checks in the placement-assessment process can make many people wary. People you’ve engaged may not understand the need for background checks, and they may not want a child welfare agency to have this information about their family. People in marginalized communities may be especially hesitant about having a background check done. Also, they might assume that any criminal charge in their background prevents the child from being placed with them, causing them to disengage from you. Be clear about any background check requirements and specify that there are many charges and convictions that will not pose a barrier to placement or other support roles they may play in the child’s life and that only some specific criminal histories will be disqualifying. Some people will want to know exactly who will need to see the background check and how any past charges will be written about in a home study. Remember that it’s very uncomfortable to talk about past mistakes, and approach every conversation about background checks in a non-judgmental way. Help people understand that discussing any criminal history can help you advocate on their behalf. It may also be helpful to assist people in getting very old or inaccurate charges removed from their records, which can be a laborious process.

Specific support services

If an identified connection is considering placement, it’s time to talk about the support services that will be available to the child and family. Your information should get more specific as the person is getting further along in the decision-making process.

  • Share information about the support that is available—before you are asked. Talk about the post-adoption or guardianship support services your system offers and explain that most families need some ongoing support to help children who have experienced grief, loss, and trauma.
  • Offer kin-specific education and support services. Highlight any specific services available to relative caregivers and the unique needs they have. Whether the identified caregiver has known the child for years or only recently met them, it’s likely that they will need help in navigating the shift in family dynamics that will happen if they provide permanency for this child. It can be particularly useful to talk about any peer support available from others in their situation. 
  • Offer child-specific support. Once someone is actively considering placement, discuss in detail the needs of the particular child, including any diagnoses, behavior challenges, or existing support services they are receiving. Be specific about how the agency or other community organizations will help the family meet those needs. 
  • Talk about financial and material support. Sometimes agency staff are hesitant to talk about financial assistance that may be available. But finances are pretty important when you’re considering adding a child to your family, especially on short notice. Potential caregivers deserve to understand the support that is available. 
  • Ask what they need. One size does not fit all. Ask each person what support they need and what supports are missing. Collecting this information helps you be more proactive in meeting the needs of a potential caregiver, and it will also help you improve your family-finding support services overall. 

Family finding offers great possibilities for achieving permanency for children and youth. Being intentional about your approach for ongoing engagement and support can help make these efforts more likely to lead to permanency and improved well-being for the child. 

More helpful resources on family finding

Two-part webinar series: 

Article: “Going to the Extreme to Find Children’s Families”