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Family-centered practice respects expertise of family and creates lasting connections

Adult woman and teenage girl standing in front of trees.
Adult woman and teenage girl standing in front of trees.

What is family finding, how does it improve outcomes for children, and why is it getting so much attention lately? For answers, we talked with Bob Friend, director of the National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness (NIPFC) at Seneca Family of Agencies in California. In 2020, the organization received a Children’s Bureau grant to expand their work to train four California counties in family-centered practices. 

What is family finding?

Family finding is a shift away from the way that child welfare has historically worked. In the past, decisions made about the path of children and families were based on the view of the agency. Family finding is a family-centered practice that respects the expertise of family and understands that relational wealth is essential to children’s health and well-being.

The NIPFC Family Finding Model was developed by Kevin Campbell. In this model, we convene a group of individuals who already, or could potentially, love and care for the young person and their “family.” They could be biological family members or they could be people who have a safe and caring relationship with the child, including neighbors, educators, coaches, mentors, clergy, CASA volunteers, attorneys, and judges—whomever a young person and their birth family identify as being meaningful people in their lives. We try not to define family for the youth, but rather to support them in identifying their family.

This network of individuals develops a plan to attain legal permanence and lifelong relationships for the youth. They then support the permanency plan, adjusting to meet the challenges that often arise, and if necessary, re-prioritizing or acting on backup options. The network members are well-positioned to continue with their ongoing support long after planning stage is over and the child’s case is closed.

Our publication, What Is Family Finding?, offers more details about the approach and links to a few other resources.

What are some of the main benefits of successful family finding and a family-centered approach?

When done successfully, the model both creates an enduring network of support for the young person and ensures that the people who matter most to them have a role in planning for their future. This gives children the connections they need to heal and avoid negative outcomes in the future. This approach also frees the agency social worker—who has fewer resources available than the larger network—from having to problem-solve every situation.

I say that this is a new way of working because we used to think that when you terminate rights of parents whose children are in foster care, you should also terminate their relationships with their children. Now, we recognize that you don’t sever old attachments to create new ones, and that children cannot heal without being connected to people who are important in their lives. Bruce Perry calls this kind of family-centered approach “relational wealth.” Perry has contracted with more than 5,000 cognitive therapists, and in assessing what works, has seen that it’s not about the quality of the therapy as much as it is about relational wealth. Even the best therapy is often not successful without relationships.

You’ve worked with hundreds of organizations in the United States and abroad. How do you help them move toward a family-centered culture and successful family finding?

There is a substantial amount of system change required to shift practices to a holistic, family-centered model.

Implementing a successful program requires planning, appropriate staffing, coaching, and training to develop people’s skills. And it takes systemic alignment. An organization is only successful when staff at all levels are supported and committed to bringing family members to the table and working collaboratively with them. It’s critical that these family members are not outnumbered by staff! We recommend a minimum of 50/50, and ideally, having family members outnumber staff. The goal is that all planning decisions—where children live, who they spend time with, where they go to school, and how their needs are met—do not require court or government oversight and are made by people who embrace a young person’s history, culture, and community of relationships.

This 2016 learning brief examines the evolution of a family finding/family group decision-making model used in San Francisco in partnership with our organization.

What are some of the obstacles to creating a family-centered culture?

One reason that implementing family finding in a traditional organization is a big shift is that it removes the responsibility of making placement decisions from the being the sole responsibility of the individual caseworker. On the surface, that probably sounds appealing. But if you are in an agency where you are fearful about recriminations or liability, your inclination might be to invite fewer people to the table and be less (or not at all) collaborative in your decision-making because you don’t want to be held responsible for other people’s decisions.

It’s also a shift away from the idea of workers doing something for a family or youth to doing something with them. Trust—in colleagues and in a youth’s family—is a critical component of family-centered practice.

I also think that in this work, there has been—and continues to be—a lot of focus on “evidence-based practice.” We’re always looking for the magic dust to create positive results. But the evidence is clear that the child welfare system, as its constructed, does not produce the desired outcomes. I believe that our solutions need to challenge and change the very nature of the work we have been doing.

Are there success stories that you would point people to?

Almost every site that has improved its family finding work can point to many success stories that involve preventing a family from fragmenting or discovering and developing loving relationships that help children thrive and heal. These stories happen because the staff who contributed to them feel renewed and reconnected to the reason they entered the field: to help and support families. 

NIPFC has a podcast series, Let’s Have a Conversation. In episode 10, “Sustaining Family Involvement,” we talked with Kelli DeCook and Renaux Swancutt of Family Service Rochester and Laurie Tochiki from Epic `Ohana. I think listening to these leaders offers some good insights about how to create and sustain a family-centered approach.

You’ve been engaged in this work for nearly 40 years! Are you feeling optimistic?

I do believe the field is positioning itself to consider and make substantive changes to the business-as-usual practices that we have learned are not helpful, and sometimes even unintentionally harmful.

Right now, I’m feeling much more optimistic about family finding and family-centered practice becoming more widely adopted. I’ve seen more interest in family finding and creating a family-centered approach in the last 18 months than I’ve seen in the last four decades! I think there is tremendous opportunity and some momentum. There’s also a lot of work to be done.