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Sleuthing Out Family Members to Improve Children's Lives

Sarah Kopplin

Sarah Kopplin may have the heart of a social worker, but she's got the skills of a private investigator. Backed by some specialized computer software, access to the right databases and strong research skills, Kopplin is on the hunt for family members, neighbors, teachers and other caring adults who can help Washington County children in foster care.

Her clients include a 14-year-old boy whose painful memories of sexual abuse have left him wondering if anyone in his family even remembered him. Another boy, who had been through two failed adoptions, wanted to know about his birth mother.

"These (children) are the most lonely, the most hopeless. They've been in care so long or moved so often that they've lost their family of origin," says Kopplin, who works on behalf of children who've been in foster care for up to 10 years, some who have been through failed adoptions and others who are about to age out of the system without support. "Having a loving relationship with family or supportive adults can be the turning point to change the trajectory of their lives."

Kopplin is the Reconnecting Children with Families coordinator in Washington County. The work, begun in October 2009 and funded through this summer, is the result of a partnership of the Department of Human Services, state and county Commission on Children and Families, Washington County Mental Health and Casey Family Programs. Four volunteers and two interns assisted Kopplin in January with 29 cases involving 38 children.

Ormond Fredericks, a child welfare supervisor in the Beaverton DHS office, helps decide which cases will go to Kopplin. "In the past, we had to rely on parents to tell us about family members," he says. But with this program "we have a resource to reach out to families and have a conversation."

Once a caseworker refers a case, Kopplin and her assistants begin scouring the child's file. Names found there are tracked through computer databases, welfare records and even Facebook. ​Then Kopplin picks up the phone: Does the landlord have a forwarding address? Does the elderly out-of-state aunt know of other relatives? Was there a special teacher? And she sends letters. An international search may require help from a consulate.

When family members or others with significant connections to the children are found, the real work begins, says Kopplin.

Kopplin, who has a master's degree in social work and previously worked as a supervisor for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), received training from national expert Kevin Campbell in how to approach and work with family members. "If done well, the (family) engagement piece will result in connections for life - the belonging we want."

Some family members didn't know the children existed. Some assumed the children had been adopted. Others have profound guilt because they hadn't been involved in the past. In many cases, the families have been splintered by drug use, criminal activity or violence.

"Some relatives are very emotional and have to grieve,'' she says. "There's guilt, embarrassment, anger at DHS and others. There's a lot for them to process."

In the case of the 14-year-old, Kopplin was able to find a grandmother who had taken care of the boy when he was younger. The woman had very fond memories of her grandson and had missed him greatly. But because the boy had struggled and been in several foster homes and residential facilities, she worried that she might say or do the wrong thing. He also was nervous.

With the help of the boy's caseworker and therapist, says Kopplin, the two have come together and begun to complete each others memories. "A warm, loving relationship has begun to develop."

It is Kopplin's job to bring willing family members together with the caseworker, foster parents and others. The first meeting is an opportunity for the family to learn about the child and how the family might help. Subsequent meetings keep family members updated and put them in the role of supporting and advocating for the child.

Placing the child with a family member is not necessarily the goal, says supervisor Fredericks. Instead, it might be as simple as finding people who will invite the child to Sunday dinner or who the child can call to talk through problems.

Sometimes, circumstances have changed for family members who were unable to parent when the child was taken into care.

That's the case for the boy who had been through two failed adoptions. He was desperate to know about his birth mother. Did she miss him? Did she want him back?

His mother, as it turns out, had made changes in her life and become more stable since losing custody of the boy. She was raising his younger sibling but thought that he had been adopted. After learning that her son was back in foster care, she didn't hesitate: Yes, she wanted to be reconnected with him. Yes, she wanted him to come home. An uncle also stepped forward to say he would help.

Much work remains to be done, says Kopplin, but she is optimistic about the boy's future. "I feel positive that this kid is going to benefit from this one way or another," says Kopplin. "Just knowing that he has a family that cares about him is life-altering."

It's one of the reasons she is so passionate about her work. Of the 10 children whose cases have been closed, all 10 have become reconnected with at least one family member, and eight have regular contact with family.

"Within every family there are positive, healthy people who want to know what happened to these kids and be a part of their lives,'' Kopplin says. "It's been amazing to see."