Q: How can we get families to take responsibility for relatives' children in foster care so they don't have to grow up with strangers?
A: Families today can be distant in many ways. Some are estranged due to economics, distance and the day-to-day stressors of life. Often, when children end up in foster care, their extended families are not aware that family problems exist and that the children are in need of a safe, stable home and supportive relationships with family members.
A federal law pioneered by Catholic Charities requires states to practice due diligence in notifying all adult relatives of children who are being removed from the custody of their parents within 30 days. This means professionals involved in dependency cases must ask about the child's family in the beginning stages of a case to help identify, locate and engage family members in a child's life.
The process includes pulling all references to family members from the case files, having the child draw their life story, and sending letters and making phone calls to those relatives or friends who can located. The objective is to find 40 connections for the child. These connections don't always mean a placement for the child, but can mean a family member with whom the child can visit or develop a relationship to show the child they are not alone.
In 2011, the Safe Children Coalition devoted staff to work solely on locating family members for children in care. They have successfully been able to connect 28 children with family members and get them out of foster care. They have also connected children with hundreds of viable relatives who can provide a child with a supportive family connection.
Dr. Wanda Gwyn, out-of-home specialist with Family Finders for the Safe Children Coalition, relates the story of Jessica, a 9-year-old who has been in foster care for several years and has a history of multiple foster care placements in addition to an arrest. Her placement prior to finding family was in a therapeutic foster home. The Family Finders Program, in partnership with case management, located several paternal relatives in Michigan. The paternal great-grandmother identified a half-sister in Bradenton to whom she had not spoken in some time and was not sure if she would be receptive to helping Jessica. Family Finders was able to reach out to Jessica's great-aunt who was surprised to hear Jessica was in foster care, and agreed to do what she could to help.
The last time the great-aunt had seen Jessica, she was an infant. Despite a poor family relationship, she was willing to meet and discuss Jessica's needs and have a visitation. This June, Jessica, who thought she was without extended family, was reunited with her great-aunt and three cousins who have lived locally in Manatee County during Jessica's entire life. Ironically, Jessica and one of her cousins look alike, all the way down to how they part their hair!
Jessica's story is not unique and shows what can happen when Family Finders, case management, Guardian ad Litem, and foster parents work together to ask the questions that can provide a child with a very important family connection.
Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Herald. Readers who have questions for "ASK the GAL" about child abuse, foster care, child protection, adoption, or who might be interested in learning more how to become a GAL volunteer can e-mail Pam at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to her at Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W, Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.