by Elizabeth Wendel
Family. When we think of the word family, we may think about our parents, our children, our siblings or our aunts and uncles and grandparents. Whatever comes to mind, family is the core framework of who we are, from our culture to our values to our norms to who we will become and what we will contribute to our world. Even before we learn to walk or talk, we are absorbing this information, learning how our family shows love or anger, teaches a new skill, or interacts with each other. In short, we are learning who we are from our families.
For thousands of children in the foster care system, “who am I” remains an unanswered question. From the age they are placed in foster care to the moment they “age out” of care, there are holes in their life stories. A common social work theory, the life course perspective, argues that our early life events mold our future. In other words, our family experiences help shape our future selves. Without that data, who do we become?
Developmentally, where children and young adults are experimenting with identity and trying on different styles, inside and out, children in the system are living without this information or, maybe, with bits and pieces that don’t fit together. We currently operate a foster care system that addresses basic needs (food and shelter) but does not necessarily have the capacity to allow for true identity awareness and construction.
Terri Awoko, a family finding supervisor and former foster parent, speaks about seeing a former foster child connecting with her siblings. “When she started connecting with her family, she lit up,” Awoko said. “The first time I told her that her nephew looked just like her, she was thrilled.”
For this young woman, and so many others, it is seeing someone who looks like her and hearing about herself that began a life course change.
As a national trend, more and more counties are introducing family finding, a program built for children to have a detective/social worker work on their behalf to unlock some of their own families’ histories – answer questions, maybe even reconnect with extended family or other support people they once knew but lost track of as they moved from place to place within the system. A family finding program utilizes trained social workers to locate lost family members and other natural mentors from children’s histories and reconnects them to children in the foster care system. Family finding requires a specific skill set, including navigation of a variety of complicated search techniques and social skills to engage and repair lost relationships or build new ones.
Family finding often uncovers fathers connecting to their children for the first time, grandparents who didn’t even know they had grandchildren, or neighbors, aunts and cousins who lost track of the child in the turbulence and constant movement that is our foster care system.
From start to finish, the Philadelphia family finding process lasts just three months, but includes intensive problem-solving and a knack for following a trail, even a weak one. Some of the most powerful stories involve something as small as finding a street sign in Romania from an old photograph. And that is where the trail begins.
Mirela, a child who spent life in foster care from age four until twenty-one, is just one of thousands of children who yearn to replace a constant sense of “other-ness” with answers about her family. I met Mirela when she was 18-years-old (a best guess since she didn’t know her actual birthday). Wearing ripped jeans and an oversized hoodie, she sat slumped, unable or unwilling to make eye contact. I asked her to tell me about herself.
“I don’t know, I don’t know who I am. What do you want me to say?”
That was it, the sum of “herself” as she felt it, and my work was cut out for me. This was a young woman who had never considered “who she was” and had never been asked what she wanted to know about her family and her history.
As we worked together, I watched her change. As we began to look at Google maps for live images of the Romanian village she came from, found pictures and even news footage from a Chicago segment of her orphanage, she became more and more vibrant. By the time we spoke with her biological mother for the first time, Mirela was straight up in her chair, speaking quietly but firmly, her short hair brushed to the side. She cried, but for the first time in a long time, they were happy tears. Her mother explained how often she thought of Mirela, how she wanted a better life for her daughter, one she could not give. In an instant, Mirela went from unwanted to loved, cherished and missed. As the conversation continued, Mirela’s mother talked about where she lived, what her sisters looked like, and what they did every day in the small Romanian village. Mirela began to piece together her identity.
Awareness about the importance of identity is becoming more and more apparent in the field of foster care. Lisa Miccholis, founder of a Philadelphia non-profit, The Monkey and The Elephant, a coffee shop and mentoring program that employs former foster youth, is painfully aware of what a lack of support system can do to a young person.
“Kids learn what to say to get through the system, and they know how to put on a face, but it’s not necessarily their face,” Miccholis said. By the time it’s time for them to be adults and be successful, they only know how to act the part, not actually live it and utilize their personality and skills to succeed.
Mirela credits one question to a major shift in her life.
“Before I spoke to her [my mother], I was angry with her, I didn’t know why she gave me away.”
When the opportunity presented itself, Mirela asked her biological mother, why she had given her away. Her mother told her who told her she was sure a life in America would be a better one. It was as if a weight was lifted. Mirela was able to begin defining herself differently, without the label that, from the moment she was born, she was unwanted. And she had an added bonus: her mother, her sisters, and other family she connected with were able to share family history, cultural identity and help her connect to who she could be.
Programs like family finding are the beginning of a system that addresses not only the basic needs of a human being, like food and shelter, but also allows space for asking questions, knowing oneself, one’s history (the good and the bad) and learning to utilize that history to decide what their own lives will be.
Elizabeth Wendel is a Family Finding Supervisor at Turning Points for Children in Philadelphia, Penn. She wrote this story as a student in the Journalism for Social Change Small Private Online Course.