The Future of Fostering: Foster Care Family Match

Technology is continuously changing the way we live our lives, whether it’s how we watch movies or the ways we form relationships.  In this digital era, Dr. Rebecca Reeder has used one intriguing new service to discover a new, loving relationship – “He moved in officially September 3 but we started meeting the last week of July,” Reeder told First Coast News.

She’s speaking about her now-adopted son Nick, 15, a young man who, after spending seven years in foster care, has come to find his forever family with Dr. Reeder thanks to a new online matchmaking service known as Family-Match.

Developed with help from one of the individuals behind eHarmony, Family-Match is a new service that tries to apply the matchmaking principles of online dating services to creating foster care placement and adoption matches that are resilient and long-lasting.  As we’ve reported previously, even simply becoming involved in the child welfare system can cause harm to children.  Not only can each new placement into foster care be traumatic, but adoption dissolution or re-homing can bring even greater harm.  With one foot firmly in the future, Family-Match is taking aim at increasing placement and adoption stability.

Currently in the United States, child welfare agencies have a few specific priorities when it comes to placing children into foster homes.  The backbone of this philosophy is known as the “continuum of care”; it asserts that states should seek to keep children with their family first, then relatives, then foster parents.  Finally, if the previous options do not yield positive outcomes, children are placed into congregate care and/or group homes.  This, however, is a very “broad strokes” method.  At a local level, state agencies try to preserve the child’s sense of community – this usually means trying to keep children within their home school district, in range of friends and family, and within reach of their normal everyday activities.  With a lack of foster parents, however, sometimes these priorities cannot all be met, especially if they have already been placed multiple times, which results in children being placed into homes outside of their communities or, in specific cases, even out of state.

The prospect of being adopted before they age out grows slimmer with each year and each placement.

How States Make a Foster Care Family Match

Though child welfare professionals generally agree that the continuum of care priorities are appropriate, they are also broad and general.  This means that the complex reality of placing a child into a foster home can look different for every new instance.  Furthermore, foster parents have the right to determine the types of children they will welcome into their home – they can select preferences for age, gender and even race (which historically means that older non-white children remain in the system for longer than average).

But beyond even that, foster parents have to consider situations they may never have experienced before.  How do they feel about teens? Will they accept emergency placements?  Can they handle behavioral issues?  Will they take a child with a high degree of medical needs?  These questions, however, cannot prepare foster parents for the reality of caring for every child, and this sometimes means it’s actually in the best interest of the child for the state to place them with another family.

All of this bureaucracy churns on as these children move from place to place, and although caseworkers do their best to serve the child’s needs, the children often have little say in what happens to them.   What’s more, research shows that each new placement not only traumatizes these children but also sets their education back by months.  Even as caseworkers strive to help create a better life for these children and their families, the very work they are doing can contribute to the damage they experience.  It’s a human system, filled with people who have certain limits and abilities – how can an organization balance the high-level priorities of the continuum of care alongside highly individual placement considerations (everything from a child’s emotional and physical well-being to the kind of family they want to be with)?  Caseworkers and courts can only do so much to maintain placement stability for every child

That’s where Family-Match comes in.

Family-Match’s Solution

Family-Match is a family-compatibility system developed by nonprofits Selfless Love Foundation and Adoption-Share in conjunction with the former senior research scientist of eHarmony.com.  Floridians participating in the program fill out surveys that take note of their parenting style, personalities and interests which are then compared with similar forms caseworkers, foster parents or therapists complete for children waiting for adoption.

“To be able to match common interests, common values — I think it’s an awesome thing,” Chris Johnson told the Orlando Sentinal.  A Clermont pastor, Johnson and his wife Alicia have adopted seven kids through Family-Match. “You can say to a kid, ‘Here’s a family that has horses or loves football or plays music. They have the same interest you have.’ That’s going to help that child be much more open to the idea, and that family may be more open, too.”  Two of the Johnsons’ children were adopted as teenagers, who are far less likely to be adopted than younger children.

It was the plight of teenagers, specifically the struggles of one Davion White, that led Thea Ramirez, founder of Adoption-Share, to begin the Family-Match mission.  In 2013, Davion, then 15, had been languishing in the foster care system since the day he was born.  With the state failing to successfully place him, and his odds of finding a home shrinking as he grew older, Davion made a plea to a St. Petersburg church congregation begging someone to adopt him.   Video of his plea went viral, and within days, 10,000 callers had contacted the state hoping to become his family.

“That completely broke me,” Ramirez said to the Orlando Sentinel. “I realize that we have people waiting and waiting and waiting to adopt, and we have children waiting and waiting and waiting to be adopted, and no good way of connecting the two. The entire model is based on waiting.”

In 2016, 28 percent of children in care had been awaiting adoption for more than three years.  At the same time, nearly 35 percent of children in care had experienced two or more placements.  These children are being shuffled from home to home as they wait for a family to finally “click” with.  In the process, despite the state’s best efforts, they are suffering developmentally.  By addressing the highly individual needs of each family and child, Family-Match hopes to alleviate some of the systemic stress that results in inadequate placements.

How States are Embracing Family-Match for Foster Care

States, for their part, seem to be welcoming the help; in addition to Florida, other states like Virginia have been testing these programs as early as November 2017.  Currently, their website allows users to browse through families located in all 50 states (though not all states have families signed up).

In New Jersey in 2016, 28 percent of children in care had experienced more than 1 placement.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 43 percent of New Jersey foster youth (age 14+) experienced 3 or more placements in their last episode in foster care.  On average, youth who age out spend 30 months in New Jersey’s foster care system.  The state continues to work on improving placement stability and has committed to trying to ensure that a child’s first placement is their best placement by increasing age limits for group homes and prioritizing kinship care.  Although older youth are still the most likely to end up in group homes in New Jersey, between 2009 and 2017 the state improved the percentage of youth whose first placement is in a family setting from 51 percent to 68 percent.  At the time this article was published, there was no information regarding the possibility of employing Family-Match in the New Jersey child welfare system.

To learn more about Family-Match, click here.

To see placement frequency statistics, click here.

To read about the struggles facing transition-age youth in NJ foster care, click here.

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