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July 2012Vol. 13, No. 6Family Finding and Rethinking Connectedness in New York

After the 2008 Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) showed poor permanency outcomes for youth in New York State, staff at Hillside Family of Agencies realized something had to change. To bolster their efforts to achieve better permanency outcomes, Hillside, in 2010, implemented two segments of family finding services: (1) quality family finding training and technical assistance (T&TA) to staff across public and private child welfare, mental health, juvenile justice, and developmental disabilities sectors and (2) services for youth.

Hillside Family of Agencies is one of the largest nonprofit agencies in New York State and offers a range of health and human services to the public and private sectors. Hillside's Institute for Family Connections offers the family finding T&TA that is specifically endorsed by the creator of the family finding model, Kevin Campbell. Family finding services for youth served by Hillside are offered by the organization's community-based clinicians.

Deborah Rosen, Director for the Hillside Institute for Family Connections, said the concept of family finding goes beyond finding immediate or extended family members for youth in care. "Young people need to be connected to permanent and loving families, but also to resilient communities. We're looking at redefining connectedness." She added that family finding requires a shift in mindset to include not just moms, dads, and grandparents, but any person the child is related to or cares about because it's important to think of this as expanding the universe of possibility for the child.

The definition of "related" also requires a new mindset, said Linda Kurtz, Senior Fellow at the Hillside Institute for Family Connections. "It's about reaching out to the child's third-grade teacher, former basketball coach, the mom's best friend, a Girl Scout leader, or a neighbor—anyone willing to commit to a plan of creating a permanent, lifelong network of connectedness for youth."

With this new definition of family in mind, Hillside family finders aim to identify a minimum of 40 adults to whom the youth is connected. Family members then come together for the blended perspective meeting at which they discuss the child's needs—with an emphasis on unconditional support and love—and members' abilities to fill those needs, and they develop a realistic plan for the youth's safety and well-being. The goal of creating a lifelong network of connectedness for youth, said Tess Mahnken-Weatherspoon, Hillside's Family Finding Practice Leader, goes beyond permanency as just a place to live. "We want to create a network of at least eight adults for each youth, and these adults can provide more than just a living situation. They can write letters, have phone conversations, provide any action that lets these children know they are loved and that someone cares about them." 

While finding 40 connections per youth is the goal, that goal is sometimes exceeded. For one boy who had limited visitation with his mother and hadn't seen his father in 12 years, Hillside family finders identified 184 connections. Mahnken-Weatherspoon added that not all 184 people are likely to provide solid support for the young man; however, if just a few of them prove to be good resources it increases the boy's likelihood of permanency and well-being now and into adulthood. In just 2 years, Hillside has worked to find family members and reconnect more than 120 youth to caring adults.

Implementation of the family finding model began with a rigorous approach to fidelity and close collaboration with Campbell. Staff wanted to go beyond regular search and engagement efforts and develop a comprehensive curriculum. The first step was piloting the curriculum internally and revising it before rolling it out to counties and agencies. Hillside implemented a 6-month learn-by-doing training for staff, who were asked to pick one youth within their caseload. Trainings involved leadership at the highest levels possible so supervisors, managers, and higher authorities could recognize the policy and procedure changes required for family finding practice. Ongoing T&TA and coaching provides the necessary support to ensure casework is faithful to the model, timely, and practiced with the sense of urgency required to achieve connectedness for young people.

With the support of New York State Of Children and Family Services, Hillside's Institute for Family Connections has trained staff in 15 New York State local Departments of Social Services, seven New York State voluntary agencies, and one Tribe since September 2011, all with a child welfare focus. At the time of this writing, staff were in the midst of a condensed training to six mental health and residential health organizations in New York State. Additionally, Rosen and Campbell are working together to train the state of Ohio's juvenile parole workforce.

More information on Hillside Family of Agency's Family Finding programs is available on their website:

Special thanks to Deborah Rosen, Director for the Hillside Institute for Family Connections, Linda Kurtz, Senior Fellow at the Hillside Institute for Family Connections, and Tess Mahnken-Weatherspoon, Hillside's Family Finding Practice Leader, for providing information for this article.