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Wall Street Journal on Foster Care
August 24, 2007 permalink
The topic of foster care rarely reaches the front page of the Wall Street Journal. In this case where it did, the social worker is presented positively, doing her best to save a twelve-year-old boy. She unsuccessfully deals with the effects of nine years of foster care. Once Humpty-Dumpty falls, he cannot be restored.
Foster Kids' Last Resort:
Finding the Lost Relatives
Ms. Librizzi Hunts For Tony Ruiz's Family;
Expecting Anger, Pain
The Wall Street Journal, By CHRISTINA BINKLEY, August 23, 2007; Page A1
LOS ANGELES -- After nine years in foster care, and nine different homes, 12-year-old Tony Ruiz was in serious trouble. He was on multiple psychiatric drugs, had long been suicidal, was often defiant and disruptive and displayed hopelessness.
"I just want to have a family," Tony told Judy Smith, a volunteer court advocate and the only person who had known him for any length of time. Fearing Tony wouldn't live to see adulthood, Ms. Smith turned to Linda Librizzi, a sleuth of sorts who locates the lost relatives of foster children.
A longtime licensed clinical social worker, 53-year-old Ms. Librizzi is on the vanguard of a growing revolution in child welfare: She is a "family finder." Thanks to computer search technology, social workers have for the first time a powerful tool to locate the family members of "cold cases," children who spend years moving from foster home to foster home until their biological families' whereabouts are unknown.
There are roughly 525,000 children in foster care at any given moment in the U.S., many of them moving to a new foster home every few months. Roughly 25,000 foster children each year reach adulthood without ever having found a permanent home. They are discharged to the streets at 18 years of age, often ending up homeless, incarcerated, or otherwise overseen by the judicial or social welfare systems.
In the 40 or so communities around the U.S. that are using the new data-plumbing techniques, government social workers are placing about 25% of cold-case children in homes, estimates Kevin Campbell, a former social-work administrator in Washington state who pioneered the method. But dedicated family finders like Ms. Librizzi, who works for a private nonprofit agency and isn't distracted by typical social-worker duties, boast success rates as high as 75%. Social workers say the likelihood of these children finding homes is otherwise nil.
Even advocates concede the main problem with family finding is that it isn't being implemented soon enough. They say it would be most effective if it were used to prevent children from spending years in the foster-care system in the first place.
There are other challenges, too. Family finding doesn't solve the psychological problems that can affect foster children, especially when they have bounced from home to home. Few families are fully prepared for the difficulties of taking in a long-lost relative who has spent years in foster care. As a result, some reunions end unhappily.
Here in Los Angeles County, home to the nation's largest child-welfare system, family finding has helped shrink the number of children in foster care to 11,000 from 14,000. That promises significant cost savings. The cost of caring for a foster child in Los Angeles can top $75,000 a year, not including the burden on the judicial system and homeless shelters as troubled children pass into adulthood.
Los Angeles started testing family finding about three years ago and is now training social workers and expanding it countywide. For the children, the process begins with the permission of a social worker -- or in a few cases, with a court order -- requested by someone involved in the child's care.
One corporate partner of this effort is U.S. Search, a unit of First Advantage Corp. which sells such data to social workers for $25 a report, less than it charges other clients. Tapped by Mr. Campbell, U.S. Search, which typically sells its services to private detectives and individuals in search of old girlfriends and others, has a small staff dedicated to working with social workers.
U.S. Search subscribes to databases of records on voter registration, marriage, divorce, criminal filings, credit records and other information. Its software broadens search terms to look for alternative spellings. In one study by Mr. Campbell, U.S. Search was able to find more than 85% of parents who were listed as "whereabouts unknown" in California court records.
Armed with this data, teams of local social workers -- and in one California county, retired police detectives -- make dozens of phone calls, knock on doors and wheedle information to re-forge family connections. They aren't just looking for adoptive homes. They're also hoping to put foster children in touch with their roots and create an additional source of support.
The work is arduous, emotional and slow. The searches, culled from so many databases, can be messy. Data are almost always missing; workers can spend weeks chasing false leads.
Even when social workers find whom they are looking for, the process can open festering family wounds, rekindling the problems surrounding the children's births or their removal from parents' care. Mr. Campbell, the inventor of family finding, tells social workers to expect a third of the family members they reach to refuse further contact. He also tells them to expect anger. "There's a lot of pain in these families," he says.
Mr. Campbell calls Ms. Librizzi one of the most tenacious family finders he has trained. She has spent more than a year trying to connect some children with their family members.
Ms. Librizzi, a dark-haired woman whose accent reveals her New York origins, spent 30 years working in child welfare before her employer, a group home for youths called Hollygrove, cut back to outpatient services for financial reasons. In 2005, she began doing family finding to find homes for Hollygrove's young residents, later expanding her clientele to children identified by the county as most in need of family finding. She declines to divulge her salary, saying only that she works part-time and is paid on an hourly basis.
Two days before Christmas in 2005, Ms. Librizzi was assigned to find the family of Tony, the 12-year-old boy. He weighed nearly 240 pounds and was often picked on at school. Separated from his brother and sister as well as his extended family over the years, Tony was living in a sparsely furnished three-bedroom group home for boys, overseen by a small rotating staff.
Ms. Librizzi began with a few bits of information about Tony's origins from his caseworker: Tony's name and birth date, the name of his mother, her Social Security number and birth date, and her former address. Nothing was known about Tony's father, not even his name. Working from her small shared office, Ms. Librizzi emailed the information to Clif Venable, a data researcher at U.S. Search.
Mr. Venable then went to work in his Culver City, Calif., cubicle, typing the information into his company's computer system. Minutes later, Mr. Venable emailed back a 10-page list of possible relatives, people who had lived at the same address, possible previous addresses, and even neighbors culled from the many databases to which U.S. Search` subscribes. Ms. Librizzi began at the top of the first page that Friday. She quickly thought she'd hit gold with a man who spent an hour discussing Tony. "Turned out, he wasn't even related," Ms. Librizzi says.
Because many of Tony's relatives had moved repeatedly, the names on the list often lacked working phone numbers. On page five, Ms. Librizzi dialed a number in Stafford, Texas -- someone with an entirely different family name.
The woman who answered demanded to know how Ms. Librizzi had gotten her number. "From an Internet search. I just want to reassure you, this is not a crank call," Ms. Librizzi says she responded. The woman finally conceded she was a distant relation -- the sister-in-law of Tony's mother's sister-in-law. She agreed to pass along a message that someone was searching for Tony's family.
An hour later, Ms. Librizzi received a call from a woman in California -- another distant relative -- who said she knew where Tony's mother was. When Ms. Librizzi returned to her office on Monday morning, three voicemail messages from Tony's mother awaited her.
Ms. Librizzi, along with Tony's social worker, pursued the possibility of developing some sort of relationship between Tony and his mother. She phoned various family members on behalf of Tony so many times that the family began to call her "Linda-for-Tony."
Ms. Librizzi also continued following other leads. Building on information from records and family members, she obtained a number for a San Fernando, Calif., Indian tribe, and called its administrator, Rudy Ortega, to find out if the tribe had records of Tony's birth. Mr. Ortega was noncommittal. The tribe receives many calls from people hoping to gain access to a tribe's benefits (even though the San Fernando tribe isn't federally recognized and doesn't receive such benefits). But the call roused Mr. Ortega into action.
As it turns out, the 32-year-old Mr. Ortega and his wife, Samantha, a medical technician, are Tony's great-uncle and great-aunt. They had three children: girls named Citlaly and Itati, and a son named Tomiear -- and they had at one time looked into adopting. They say they would have adopted Tony all those years ago had they been contacted.
Six weeks after the search began, Tony was told his mother had been found. He also learned he came from a line of Indian chiefs from the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians. His great-grandfather was Chief Little Bear Rudy Ortega Sr. The senior Mr. Ortega was interested in bringing a tribal member back into the fold.
At first, L.A. County social workers explored reuniting Tony with his mother. But his mother failed to show consistent interest or ability to care for Tony, say social workers. Social workers say Tony's mother, who has had several other children removed into foster care, moves frequently among the homes of friends or relatives. She could not be reached for this article.
Meanwhile, the tribe pulled together. Three other families quickly volunteered to start proceedings to potentially adopt him, including Rudy and Samantha Ortega. During a meeting that fall, tribal elders determined that the Ortegas were the best match. Tony soon began to visit them, first briefly, then spending weekends at their home.
When he returned to the Lynwood group home each Sunday night, Tony wept and pleaded to stay with the Ortegas. He hung a small dreamcatcher -- an Indian totem said to ensnare bad spirits -- over his bed.
Last fall, Tony announced he wanted to become a veterinarian -- a sign social workers say that he was looking forward to the future. In March, the county court gave him permission to move in with the Ortegas, who took classes in how to deal with troubled children. The family also arranged to have another male relative tutor Tony in the afternoons to help with schoolwork and socialization.
By April, Tony was off medication entirely. Mrs. Ortega discovered he needed glasses -- he had once had them, but lost them in the course of his many moves. Chatty and smiling, he lost 50 pounds. Now 13, he began to earn A's at his new school.
Tony struggled to describe what was special about the Ortegas. "They hug me," he finally said.
Things didn't continue as smoothly. After the initial honeymoon period, many of Tony's former patterns of misbehavior reappeared. He walked out of class at school and at home, his discipline problems escalated and frightened the family. He once waved a kitchen knife at Mrs. Ortega, she says, and she caught him urging the family's pet dog to fight with a neighbor's Chihuahua. He bullied Tomiear, Mrs. Ortega's youngest child, by pushing and teasing the preschooler.
When she discovered she was pregnant with her fourth child, Mrs. Ortega says she feared Tony might become jealous and hurt the baby. Two weeks ago, the family abruptly discontinued the adoption, saying they'd reached the end of their rope. The county didn't fully prepare her for the magnitude of Tony's troubles, said the angry Mrs. Ortega, who drove Tony to his social worker's office and left him there that Friday afternoon. "If I were to do this again, it would be with a child who is much, much younger," she said.
Ms. Librizzi says Tony's experience with his family has revealed behavioral problems that had been ignored when he was being shuffled among foster homes. Tony will begin intensive therapy for these issues, she says.
Mr. Campbell says such outcomes are all too common. "You ask yourself how would Tony's story be different if his family had been found in the first six months after being taken from his mother," he says.
Tony is now once again living with just a few personal belongings in a group home for boys.
Just after he left the Ortegas, new hope for Tony emerged: his tutor. The tutor, a police officer who is engaged to a tribe member, told Tony's social-work team that he remains interested in serving as a mentor -- or possibly more -- to Tony.
"We're going to keep on keeping on," says Ms. Librizzi. "We don't end until we have some sort of personal connection for a kid."
Source: Wall Street Journal