Family finding's creator, Kevin Campbell, a vice president at EMQ Children and Family Services, views children who have no family connections like disaster victims: Help is urgently needed and there's not a moment to waste. He calls them “the loneliest people on Earth.”
In Washington state, where Campbell first developed family finding, 253 out of 288 troubled children moved in with relatives within a six-month period in 2003. And the movement is growing. Campbell visits as many as 10 cities a week, from Hollywood to New York City, teaching social workers to track down kin.
"This is one of the most exciting and innovative approaches in reconnecting children and family that I've seen in 30 years,'' said Professor Gerald P. Mallon of the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York, a national expert on creating permanent family ties for foster children.
It begins with a hunt for names in case files, then specially crafted Internet searches that can last less than a half-hour. Once family members are located, social workers try to ease them into taking responsibility for their lost children through carefully scripted letters and calls.
They also ask for names of other relatives and dates of family reunions. Campbell urges social workers not to stop until they have found at least 40 family members for every child. Some find as many as 300.
"My mission is to make sure families know where their kids are, and kids know where their families are,'' said Campbell, 41, from the headquarters of EMQ, a non-profit community agency. “We should never raise a child in the public system who all along had a family who we didn't call.”
The premise of his program is so simple, longtime child advocates wonder why it's taken so long for someone to think of it.
It's widely known that children do better with their families than in group care or temporary foster homes. But many social service departments fail to revisit, or search beyond, parents who in most cases are drug-addicted, mentally ill or in prison.
Convinced of the importance of kin, California is one of only two states that pays relatives to be foster parents. Santa Clara County has an entire unit devoted to relatives, with 44 percent of foster youth now living with kin.
But too many of the half-million children in foster care nationwide have no lasting bonds.