By the time Jason was 16, he had already been in foster care for years. He entered the system in California and eventually moved to North Carolina and entered care again, losing touch with both parents, a brother, a sister and countless other family members in the process. When he turned 18 and "aged out" of foster care, Jason would be completely alone.
But Steve Gangloff, the Family Finder at the Children's Home Society of North Carolina, used the Family Finding process to help change Jason's future. Through intensive networking, relentless follow-through and some sheer luck, Gangloff helped reunite Jason with the family he thought he'd lost for good.
Finding Out Who the Family Members Are
"The Family Finding process starts by gathering baseline information from a child's social worker, and from the child himself, about who the known family members are," explains Gangloff. "In Jason's case, we knew he had both parents, a brother and a sister, all living in different locations, but no contact information for any of them."
"We find most of a child's relatives by contacting other relatives, but we can also use database searches when necessary," Gangloff continues. "The key is finding those first few connections. I network with everyone I can to find information, including the social workers at our agency."
The "big break" came when a social worker discovered that another foster parent knew Jason's mother and was able to get a phone number.
"We lucked out when that social worker just happened to get Jason's mother on the phone. I talked to her immediately and explained how, even though her own parental rights had been terminated, she could still help her child. Within 10 minutes, she gave me contact information for three relatives: Jason's father, his Aunt Flora and his grandmother."
Family Leader Helps Gather Relatives
Aunt Flora turned out to be the lead family driver for the Family Finding process. From her home in California, she organized other relatives and pulled them together. (In the process, she and Gangloff discovered that Jason's brother was living with his father. His sister's whereabouts were still unknown.)
Gangloff and his team traveled to California to hold group meetings with Jason's assembled relatives. More relatives from Washington, D.C. participated by conference call. During the meetings, Gangloff shared Jason's perspectives with his relatives, including the people he remembered as important from his childhood, the fact that he had no connections now, and who he wished could be a part of his future.
"At these meetings, the family members really came to understand how disconnected and lonely this child really was," says Gangloff. "They realized how important it is for them to be there to provide emotional support."
After the family had some time to absorb the information about Jason, they gathered again to discuss what they were willing to do to rebuild their connection to him. Ten of them expressed their commitment to ongoing connectedness with Jason, and five, including Aunt Flora, expressed an interest in adopting him.
Aunt Flora became the family leader, charged with continuing to build and monitor ongoing family connections with the assistance of Jason's social worker in North Carolina. She also flew to North Carolina to meet with Jason in person, and became part of Jason's monthly child and family team meetings.
The Family Finding process has had a huge positive effect on this child's life," says Gangloff. "He exchanges frequent phone calls and letters with his newfound relatives, several of whom have shared a bunch of family photos. He is excited about their visits. He's also doing well in school and is stable in his current foster home. He joined track and football teams and now recognizes the value of those connections as well."
Aunt Flora meanwhile has continued to locate other family members. She located Jason's missing sister in a group home in California and has reconnected them as well. Social workers in California and North Carolina have initiated an interstate adoption process and have helped her prepare for a home visit from Jason.
"Even if Jason ages out before this adoption is finalized, he'll likely go to her anyway, and she'll welcome him with open arms," says Gangloff. "In less than a year, he went from no family connections to having a strong network of family connections and a future outside of foster care."