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Going to the extreme to find children’s families

Teenage boy, male adult, young boy
Teenage boy, male adult, young boy

FosterAdopt Connect, an agency that provides post-adoption support to families in Missouri and eastern Kansas, has been locating birth families using an “Extreme Family Finding” model since 2019. In 2020, they received a one-year grant from the Children’s Bureau to replicate the model to sites in Rhode Island, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Kansas.

We talked with Jennifer Townsend, director of recruitment programs at FosterAdopt Connect, about the family-finding model and its expansion into four additional sites.

What is the Extreme Family Finding model?

It’s a fairly simple concept that has amazing results! In Extreme Family Finding, a social worker is paired with a private investigator, and together they search for birth family members for a child whose permanency plan is adoption. Once a child is permanently placed, we provide what we call “concierge support”—tailored services to the child and family to ensure their success.

Extreme Family Finding steps include:

  • A case manager reviews the child or sibling group’s case plan so that we understand their needs and can ensure that they are working with an adoption-competent therapist.
  • The case manager and a private detective work together to create a genogram—a family tree of birth family members.
  • The team starts sleuthing! They work the genogram to locate and attempt to contact identified family members.
  • The case manager works with interested family members to determine if they can meet the child’s needs, similar to any home study process.
  • A capable family member is identified and the placement process begins.
  • FosterAdopt Connect provides ongoing post-placement support services to the family and child.

It’s important to note that we credit the roots of Extreme Family Finding to the successful Extreme Recruitment program model that was created by the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition of St. Louis. They originated the idea of working with a private investigator in family search efforts.

On average, how many family members do your teams contact?

It varies by site. Our teams’ genograms usually contain about 100 family members because we’ve been doing this a long time. Genograms at our replication sites have been between 30 and 80 families.

It’s not necessarily a numbers game, and lower numbers of family members is often a good thing. Because that typically means that we’ve identified likely permanency options and can stop looking. On the other hand, we sometimes have to expand a genogram to as many as 300 relatives in order to reach one that is willing and appropriate. This usually happens when we have families have especially high rates of generational drug abuse and isolation.

How do you find families?

Our private investigators have taught us a lot of tricks of the trade for identifying and finding family members. We start with the children’s case file, of course. Then we move on to things like reading obituaries, using skip-tracing software, and doing lots of online searches.

I sometimes joke that I spend my days on Facebook, because social media is the primary way that we locate family members—often through photos people post. For example, we’ve tracked family members from seeing a house number or cross street or license plate number in a photo with car. When a family member posts a group photo, we see who is tagged and see if they’ve come up in our research.

All this preliminary work eventually leads to knocking on doors and making phone calls. We’ll talk with anyone who will talk to us. It doesn’t matter if they want anything to do with child. They just need to be willing to share information that leads us to the next person.

These are awkward conversations to initiate! But thanks to the training everyone receives—including from the investigators—and the exceptionally personable staff we hire, the conversations end up being engaging and helpful in moving cases forward.

Who are the children served by Extreme Family Finding?

I wish we could do Extreme Family Finding for every child. But we have to limit it to children who are most at risk of aging out of foster care without an adoptive resource: children 10 or older; large sibling groups; and children with significant medical or mental health issues.

Each family finder serves 10 children or sibling groups at any given time. That may sound like a lot, but we make sure that only five of those cases are in an “active” phase, meaning that we are working the genogram—searching for and contacting families.

What are the biggest challenges to starting and running an Extreme Family Finding program?

People are often surprised to hear this, but one of the most difficult things is filling the private investigator positions. That’s because you need somebody who has real-world experience as a PI or detective and is also able to work with children and families through a social work lens. We have great PIs right now who have been with the program for a while. Our chief investigator had adopted two kiddos before joining the program. Another detective had been a relative resource for a kid in care, and I think it helps in his work knowing that there are people just like him out there who might be waiting to be found.

Do you always succeed in finding capable family members?

We have great results, but it’s not 100 percent. We need to identify a family member who is both willing and able. Often people are one or the other. If we find somebody who is willing but unable, we’ll go to the end of the Earth to help them. We’ve helped people get a car, we’ve fixed a roof, built a new room in a family’s house….

In general, I’d say that one-third of our work is finding 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.

With a combination of sleuthing, advocacy, and support, 80 percent of the children we serve are matched with permanency resources, and 90 percent are connected with safe and appropriate lifelong support.

How long does it take to identify a placement or permanent connection?

Twenty weeks is our average, but it varies greatly. Sometimes we find a willing and able relative in two weeks. I had one case go on for years—a boy who had extremely high medical needs. But we did find a great family! And that boy thrived once placed in a stable and loving home. He went from being totally withdrawn and nonverbal to speaking and giving hugs.  

What did the process of replicating the program through the Children’s Bureau grant look like?

Not the way we expected it would! Because we received the grant and started planning in-person trainings shortly before COVID hit. So, like the rest of the world, we pivoted and moved to phone calls where we got to people at the four expansion sites—Adoptions Rhode Island, Adoptions Together in Maryland, TRAC Family Services in Pennsylvania, and our site in Kansas—and then held online trainings about the details of the project.

Once they started their cases, we had coaching calls once a week for several months, then biweekly, and now once a month.

I was thrilled to bring what I’ve learned to these agencies. They are doing great work. But they’ve also taught me a lot over the course of the project. We’re already making improvements in our program based on what we learned from the expansion sites.