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May 2011Vol. 12, No. 4International Family Finding

This is one of three articles in this issue about agencies that received a Children's Bureau Family Connection grant in 2009 to help children in foster care reconnect with family members.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 mandated that agencies engage in intensive efforts to locate children's grandparents and other adult relatives when a child enters foster care. It didn't limit these efforts to the child's State of residence or even to the United States. However, few agencies are prepared to conduct searches in other countries for relatives of children in foster care. International family finding requires a reliable network of social work connections around the world—the kind of network that the Baltimore-based International Social Service-United States branch (ISS-USA) has.

ISS has been engaged in international family finding for over 85 years. In 2009, ISS-USA teamed with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Rutgers University to win a Family Connection grant. Their project involves training social workers in seven New Jersey counties in intensive international family finding efforts. The knowledge and outcomes of these social workers will be compared with those in seven other counties where workers have not received the specialized training. Findings from the project evaluation will be used to build knowledge in the field about what works in family finding to improve outcomes for children.

The project staff estimated that approximately 1,500 children in the New Jersey foster care system have relatives in other countries. However, when the project got underway, project staff discovered that caseworkers were sometimes reluctant to refer cases to ISS or not sure about how international family finding worked. During the first year of the project, staff conducted a needs assessment survey of workers to which approximately 1,000 caseworkers responded. The results showed a number of reasons for the low referral rate:

  • Some workers didn't understand that making connections with a child's relatives abroad did not necessarily imply placement abroad. It could also mean connecting with a relative who would send birthday cards or provide links to family or cultural identity. It could even mean termination of parental rights so that the child could be adopted.
  • Many workers didn't know how to do international family finding or how to start.
  • Workers didn't know if there would be support in their office for international family finding or resources for communicating with foreign family members. (In fact, New Jersey offers a "language phone line" with real-time translation.)
  • Some workers had a difficult time believing that it could ever be in the best interests of U.S. children to place them in a foreign country.

The project staff set out to address this combination of institutional and personal issues that kept caseworkers from using international family finding. Workers in counties that received intensive training learned how to work with children and their families early in the process to identify all relatives—domestic and international. Workers also learned to connect with a family's neighbors and place of worship to find out if a child had family abroad. After learning of a possible family connection, the worker would refer the case to ISS, so they could continue the search through ISS social workers in the foreign country. If the decision was eventually made to consider placing the child with the relative abroad, the ISS worker in the other country would arrange for a home study and all services a child might need.

Project staff wrote a curriculum for international family finding and conducted all-day trainings with DCF-DYFS staff, which were completed at the end of 2010. Since then, the number of cases referred for international family finding has shown a remarkable increase—while there were only 82 inquiries about referrals in all of 2010, there were 139 inquiries in just the first quarter of 2011. Another recent boon for the project has been the addition of an International Liaison position at DCF-DYFS. The liaison answers caseworker questions about referrals, helps caseworkers complete forms, and makes the appropriate referrals to ISS.

Project staff members realize that the courts play a big part in whether children can establish connections with relatives in other countries. Staff are currently working on a 2-3 hour training for judicial and legal professionals that will be used in a pilot program in September 2011. The goal is to train the courts to look outside the jurisdiction, including outside the United States for family connections.

According to Project Director Felicity Sackville Northcott, Ph.D., "We want the courts and the caseworkers to treat international family finding like any other family finding that involves another jurisdiction. The decision to connect a child to family in another country may well be in the best interests of that child, and we work to make that a viable option."

The project recently posted a list of Frequently Asked Questions that caseworkers may have about family finding. View the questions and answers here:

For more information about ISS-USA and the international family finding project, contact Project Director Felicity Sackville Northcott at

To find out more about the Children's Bureau Family Connection grant program, visit:

Many thanks to Felicity Sackville Northcott, Ph.D., for providing the information for this article.