14, No. 1
Bringing Absent Relatives into the Picture
Adapted from ChildFocus (Oct. 2007). Making “Relative Search” Happen: A Guide to Finding and Involving Relatives At Every Stage of the Child Welfare Process. and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington and EMQ Children & Family Services. (2008). Family Search & Engagement: A Comprehensive Practice Guide.
Child welfare agencies in North Carolina and other parts of the country are moving in the right direction. Traditionally, agencies only began intensive relative searches for children who had been in care for a long time, and who had no remaining viable long-term placement options. Now we often diligently search for relatives earlier in a child’s involvement with child welfare. However, when we find them, we don’t always know what to do with them. Here are a few suggestions for engaging them in a more active role.
Expand your thinking about how absent parents and extended family can play an important part in a child’s life. If we think anything less than permanent custody is a failure, then we will miss many opportunities to build a life-long support network for the child. We also miss potential resources that might prevent placement or hasten reunification. Can a father participate in planning at a Child and Family Team meeting? Can a grandparent provide respite child care to prevent placement? Can a former neighbor offer a home base for a youth aging out of foster care? Broadening the questions we ask and options we consider helps successful plans take shape.
Be patient. Don’t give up if someone initially seems reluctant. Some families may have a history of negative interactions with child welfare, or they may have a general distrust of government agencies. Offering small but tangible ways to connect with a child can sometimes lead to more involved commitments: show pictures or letters from the child, ask for their input in a Child and Family Team meeting, or review ways they have helped the child or parent in the past.
Persevere. Even if an absent parent or family member hangs up after a few sentences, send them a note, thanking them for their time and acknowledging the surprise and difficulty they may have experienced in being contacted. Provide your contact information and invite the family member to call back if they might be able to share any information in order to help the child.
Dig deeper. We open up options if we look beyond traditional definitions of family. Digging deeper, beyond the first known relative, can help uncover a greater network of people who may step forward on behalf of a child. Extended family members in particular can be the most effective way to increase permanency and to stabilize youth stays in care, especially for older youth, minorities, and sibling groups.
Navigating Family Dynamics
Don’t give up. Sometimes the custodial parent may be reluctant to identify absent parents, relatives, or other adults who care about their children. It can help to give parents time, and to gently remind them about the benefits for their child of permanent family connections, and the harm for children who don’t have them. Having a staff member who is designated to do family searches can help reduce resistance, as parents may view this person as more neutral than their own caseworker. Parents may become more open as they see that other family members are concerned and willing to participate in services. When all else fails, you may need to partner with the courts and attorneys to obtain court orders requiring that parents identify kin.
Ask the children. Most children will happily tell you who is important to them and who has helped them in the past. Throughout the life of a case, ask children about their supports, and be sure to include as much contact information as possible for the case record.
Focus on the child’s needs. Continually bring attention back to what is best for the child, and to what specifically is needed to make that happen. This allows professionals to maintain a neutral stance and focus on joint problem-solving.
The Role of Culture
Respect and explore the role of family culture while engaging family members. Give the family the opportunity to educate and inform you about themselves. Talk with the family about their history and background, and their thoughts and feelings about foster care, adoption, and child welfare agencies. Remember that culture refers to much more than race, and that religion, region, extended family, and personal experiences can influence our beliefs about family. As always, it’s important to use translators when a family cannot communicate easily in English, and to educate yourself on some of the common cultural groups in your county.
As North Carolina seeks to build on the family-centered foundation provided by MRS, child welfare professionals face new challenges. Most people would agree that enlarging a child’s network of family support is a worthwhile goal. Yet figuring out how to find and partner with new support people can be complicated. With an open-minded approach, patience, and support from supervisors, practitioners can begin to add family search and engagement skills to their toolbox for improving outcomes for children.