Foster Care: Extreme Edition

An innovative program in St. Louis is making big strides in matching hard-to-place kids with adoptive families, on a fast track

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Daniel Shea for TIME

Claire, right, with her adoptive mother Stephanie on their front stoop

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But under the Extreme Recruitment model, team members are in constant contact, with weekly 30-minute meetings propelled by checklists of action items. Among the team members are the coalition's not-so-secret weapons: two full-time private investigators employed by the agency who track down dozens of members of a child's biological family. The old assumption was that if a child's parents couldn't care for her, everyone else in the family would have a similarly negative influence — that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. The new conventional wisdom is that having contact with family is critical to a child's identity, and if you haven't found any family members who can be a positive influence, then you haven't looked hard enough. "There are," Scheetz says, "lots of apples."

In 2008, George W. Bush signed family finding into federal law as part of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. While different states have implemented the law at different speeds, within Extreme Recruitment, the significance of family finding can't be overestimated. "We're talking about these kids being reconnected to support systems, family, their roots," says Sheila Suderwalla, a coalition social worker. "For our kids, when they enter foster care, their primary label, their primary identity, is a foster child." But a foster child reconnected to his family becomes Aunt Rita's nephew or Johnny's cousin. "He is someone who's cared about," Suderwalla says.

On a practical level, Scheetz says, relatives are likelier than strangers to be unfazed by a kid's special needs. Say a 10-year-old foster child has been diagnosed as bipolar. It's possible that bipolar disorder runs in the family and that the great-grandmother considering adopting the child is already familiar with the condition because her niece has it too. "The family knows how to deal with it," says Scheetz.

Her claims are borne out by a recent Cornell University study showing that of people who take an adoption-preparation course, only 4% of those who do not have a prior connection to a child will ultimately go through with adoption, but a whopping 53% of people with a connection will. As foster-care consultant Kevin Campbell, who is credited with inventing the practice of family finding, puts it, "Before giving kids to strangers, we should be making sure they don't have family members who can take care of them. Children and young people need to be afforded the dignity of knowing their family story — where they come from, the strengths and challenges in the family. For me, it's a human-rights issue."

Rather than following the steps to permanent placement sequentially — for example, identifying a family for a child and then making sure the child is mentally and physically ready to live with that family — Extreme Recruitment pursues all the preparations for adoption simultaneously. It also pursues multiple adoptive families at once instead of waiting for one not to work out before moving on. "What happens if we find more than one preadoptive family?" Scheetz asks. "Great!"

Where once social workers would locate just a handful of relatives per child, these days the social workers and private investigators working in tandem find a minimum of 40 per child, though the number is usually closer to 60. The Internet, especially public databases like publicrecordsnow.com and virtualgumshoe.com has made the job easier, though there's no replacement for old-fashioned pavement pounding. In one extraordinary week, coalition social worker Ian Forber-Pratt and private investigator Russell Smith identified a staggering 113 family members of a child; then Forber-Pratt attended a wake where he found 15 more. For putting faces with the names on a family tree, it turns out, nothing beats a funeral.

Finding the Gems

For each child's case, the goal is to find the two individuals who, Scheetz swears, exist in every family: the informant, who knows who lives where, who has been married or divorced or imprisoned and what everyone's phone numbers are; and the family gem, to use Scheetz's term, the cousin or uncle or grandparent who is both emotionally and logistically prepared to open his or her home to a young relative. The sign that he's found the family gem, says Carlos Lopez, one of the coalition's investigators, is when the person opens the door, hears why he's there and immediately says, "I'm so glad you've found me. What do I need to do?"

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