Supporting our Family Connections

As young people transition out of care and into post-secondary education, a lack of permanence often drives youth to salvage a relationship with members of their birth family.  Young people often kick-start these reconnections with family members with a search on Facebook, out of sight from social workers or other supportive adults provided by the child welfare system.

Finding and reconnecting with birth family can be confusing, anxiety-raising and chaotic for youth.  Sometimes, the reconnected family provides great support for a young person launching into adulthood.  But often, without support from caseworkers or other supportive adults, these attempts at re-connecting with birth family backfire with heart-wrenching results.  Desperate longing for family may end with young people being rejected, re-traumatized, or even victimized. It’s easy to see where a young person’s educational trajectory could be thrown off-course as they struggle to connect or re-connect with family.

Recently, FosterClub polled young people about their family connections. Responses from young people who’ve experienced California’s foster care system can help us better understand how to support their ability to build and maintain healthy relationships with family members.

Seven ways to support family connections

1. Help our families receive services prior to entering care.

74% of the poll-takers, age 24 and younger, said counseling would have benefitted their family. But only 9% received counseling before entering care, and another 43% after. Youth with participating biological family members find services helpful, especially services they can participate in together.  Young people valued family therapy more than any other service (such as addiction treatment or housing) that could have been provided to their family.

Before I entered foster care more services such as family counseling, respite, crisis intervention and financial support could have been provided.
— Rosalina, over 10 years in foster care

Don’t assume young people aren’t interested in counseling… a whopping 83% indicated family therapy was the type of support they wanted for their family.

2. Provide youth and their families with information about how foster care works and help with navigating the system.

More than half the young people indicated they did not have access to the information they needed about foster care. Yet, youth who received information about the foster care system and how to navigate it were typically more connected with their biological family.  Information should include an overview of the foster care system, roles of everyone involved in their case, and an explanation to youth about why they are in foster care.  When youth DO receive information, it most often comes from a caseworker (52%) or an attorney (35%).

Everyone is afraid of the unknown right? They had no clue what foster care was and they wanted custody however my social worker waited 11 years to tell me that. They absolutely should have known and my life would have been so much brighter and the trauma and anxiety the system has caused me could all have been solved and I could have had my family there for me.
—Mariah, over 10 years in foster care

3. Engage our relatives, and not just for placement.

Most youth do not recall their relatives being notified when they entered the system, or very few relatives were notified.  Youth report a negative perspective of the system from their relatives and believe this is due to lack of information provided to them.

My relatives personally believe that I would end up with negative habits or simply a failure in life due to the difficult complications a foster youth has to face. They don’t believe that anything positive comes from being in foster care. Therefore, their perspective toward the foster care system contains negative connotations.
— Tommy, over 10 years in foster care

However, many youth want help in keeping relatives connections strong, even when a relative isn’t a placement option. For example, approving biological family members for respite care to give the siblings an opportunity to spend time on weekends and holidays with approved biological kin is a helpful way to stay connected.

4. Arrange visits — more frequent and higher quality.

Youth value visitations with biological family members, especially youth separated from siblings. Visits were the second- and third-rated support that young people wanted for their family, with 78% seeking in-person visits and 65% wanting regular phone calls.

I believe the foster care system could have set up meetings with me and my mom the year I was first in foster care because now it’s harder to have a relationship with my family since they went so long without me in there lives.
— Jazmin, 1-3 years in foster care

5. Place us with trauma-informed foster parents who value and honor family connections.

Youth with engaged and informed foster parents are typically more connected. Foster parents should be prepared and trained to support youth reconnecting with biological family members. Youth want options in their visitation and engagement opportunities with biological families.

6. Help us locate and create meaningful relationships with our family members.

Many young people search for biological family while in care or at some point after leaving care. Many youth reunite with biological families outside of the system, often as they are aging out of foster care. Or sometimes the search for family is done in secret, since youth may carry shame for searching for biological family who mistreated or abandoned them. Young leaders often discuss wishing they were appropriately prepared and supported in reconnecting with family members.

“I have 4 siblings and upon entering at age 2 all four of us were separated for several years. We went several months without visitations. However, as I got older — around 15 — we began to have monthly visits…  what I think should be changed is to make sure children are kept in contact with siblings at all cost. “
— Lynette, over 10 years in foster care

7. Acknowledgement and support our grief.

Youth who are unable to reunify with their biological family may experience ambiguous loss, a loss that occurs without closure or understanding. This kind of loss leaves a youth searching for answers, and thus complicates and delays the process of grieving, and often results in unresolved grief. Counseling and trauma-informed services can be critical in helping youth resolve the profound sense of loss that can come from being separated from biological family.


Participating in the Ed Summit in Pasadena March 23-24? Join us for the session titled “Birth Family Relationships & the Impact on Our Education“ and continue this discussion. Or look for other sessions that include courageous conversations with scholars, the California Youth Ambassadors and FosterClub.