The language of family finding is evolving in response to years of learning from practice and research. The family finding name itself came from these central questions:
Is it true this child has no one?
Is it true this child has no father?
Is it true this parent has no one who will help today or tomorrow?
Multiple studies and experience in the United States, Canada and Australia have provided clear answers. Every child has, or can have, someone who cares deeply about them. Every human being has or had a father, and every parent has or had adults with whom they can build supportive relationships.
We have learned to ask critical questions that aim at human truth rather than exclusionary beliefs. Who loves this person? Who might love this person? Who could learn to love this person? In asking these questions, we seek to find the people who will circle around the child and become the Family Finding network for safety and healing.
The potential of the family finding process runs up against the common public perception, rooted in outdated philosophies, that the child welfare system is primarily focused on foster care and adoption. Our system is, in fact, a child protection system that leaves most children safely at home after an investigation.
Nearly half of all children who are removed are now returned to a parent, and those who cannot be safely restored to first parents are most often placed permanently with relatives or others closely connected to the family.
This reflects our growing recognition of the intrinsic value and dignity of family, culture and community in every person’s life.
But there remains a tension in many child welfare systems between a stronger connection with family and the outdated framework of removal and placement with strangers, or the use of outside services to promote behavioral change (or to prove it is not likely).
In the U.S., this mission conflict is a serious challenge that stands in the way of our moving from a system designed to rescue and protect children from their families to a system focused on the stability and protection of children in their families. The need for this shift has greater urgency due to the opioid crisis and other problems associated with economic disparities.
Of greatest concern in the misalignment between what our child welfare system used to be and what it aspires to be now is the effect of this disconnect on the actual practice of child protection. ‘Casework as usual’ practice and decision-making continue in many places to be the default that children, parents and families experience as caseloads and investigation levels increase.
It is critical that child protection leaders and policymakers lead from their positions to close the gap between the evolving new vision and the outdated legacy perspectives. To advance our practice toward safety and healing we must reckon with our past and embrace a new way of seeing and doing.
As we seek to understand the children and families we serve we can embrace new language that reflects openness and inclusion rather than judgment and control. Our family finding approach endorses a framework built on three concepts: family seeing, justice doing and dignity giving.
In envisioning our future, what would our practice look like, and how would relationships and experiences change, if we were to abandon approaches that separate and make small the people for whom these systems exist? What untapped potential could be unlocked if we saw restoring humanity to our work as critical to the safety and healing of all involved?
Our view of the foster care crisis highlights challenge and opportunity. We have seen that separating children from their families and moving them from ‘bad’ parents and relatives to ‘better’ foster and adoptive homes further harms the children we are charged with protecting. We serve these children better when we help them build protective relationships with relatives and others offering unconditional love with safety and healing.
Lasting results can be achieved by partnering with families and empowering them to provide their own solutions so their children can safely stay in their families. By working with families, rather than against them, we affirm the dignity and humanity of us all and we join together to protect our most vulnerable children.
Kevin Campbell is co-founder of the National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness. Jill Borgeson is a family finding consultant for Ventura County, Calif.