Friday, May 04, 2007

Jamal, who always spent holidays alone, is connected with extended family

Me lonely? Not now, thanks to the 'family finding' search
Internet search helps connect foster kids with their relatives
Lelchuk, Ilene. San Francisco Chronicle, May 2, 2007, pg. B4.

SAN FRANCISCO - At age 15, Jamal Claybourne was considered to be the loneliest boy at Seneca Center, a group home in San Francisco.

He was born addicted to crack and whisked from his mother at the hospital; he met her just once when he was 10. She is now presumed dead. His father is in jail and his grandmother and grandfather, who took him in now and then, died two years ago.

That made Jamal the perfect candidate when the county decided six months ago to try something new in the field of foster care -- a combination of high-tech Internet searches and old-fashioned gumshoe work to find extended family and family friends who can support such lost children.

About 22 counties in California, including San Francisco, Alameda and Los Angeles, are trying this approach, and one state legislator wants to make it law.

In Jamal's case, the "family finding" search identified some 30 relatives in Oregon, who have embraced him and are even fighting, good-naturedly, over whose home he should stay in when he eventually moves there.

A dozen of those relatives -- aunts, uncles, cousins and friends that are like family -- surrounded him Tuesday at the Capitol steps in Sacramento, where Jamal and his team of social workers were honored during the start of Foster Care Month.

"When my grandparents died when I was 13, I was hopeless," Jamal said, speaking quickly and softly. "I have hope now."

Jamal was the only foster child at Seneca who received no visitors, no calls and had no place to go on Christmas day.

"When he came to us about two years ago, he had a lot of serious self-destructive and aggressive behaviors," said Daren Dickson, clinical director at Seneca Center, a nonprofit that has a contract with San Francisco to house, counsel and school the city's most troubled foster children.

California leads the nation in foster-care cases; there were about 78,000 young people in the system in 2006. That's roughly 20 percent of the nation's foster children in a state with about 12 percent of the nation's population. A growing number of those young people are leaving foster care, many of them going into a world with no family or support.

The idea behind the family finding movement is so simple -- unite children with their extended families -- that one might wonder why it is considered revolutionary. But exhausted social workers haven't always looked for or been able to locate relatives and friends of children who have been in the system most of their lives. Relatives' names, phone numbers and other records get lost over time. For instance, Jamal's social workers are still trying to figure out which prison his father is in, Dickson said.

Also, powerful Internet search tools didn't become affordable until recently, said Kevin Campbell, who is credited with pioneering the family finding movement about five years ago while working with foster youth in Washington state.

Campbell based his approach, which he now teaches to social workers across the nation, on the International Red Cross' family-tracing techniques used in war-torn Rwanda. Campbell's early searches in Washington for Catholic Community Services used genealogical archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Internet services. The approach was so successful that in 2003 Washington's Legislature required intensive relative searches for all foster care children.

Campbell, now a consultant, has since partnered with U.S. Search, an Internet-based company that uses multiple databases to track individuals' addresses and phone numbers. It offers counties and nonprofits a 50 percent discount for its services: A "relative report" for a foster child costs $25.

In the search for Jamal's relatives, Dickson said he mined the boy's paperwork and finally found an old "contact-in-case-of-an-earthquake" form with the name Harry Bostwick on it. U.S. Search found a phone number and address. Bostwick turned out to be a paternal great-uncle of Jamal's living outside Medford, Ore.

Social workers were cautious, calling several times and visiting Oregon before telling Jamal he had numerous relatives. Bostwick has five children and 21 grandchildren.

"Jamal's got more relations up here than Carter's got pills," quipped the retired cobbler.

Jamal, who first flew to Oregon in September, said the visit was awkward at first, but soon he was playing with his cousins.

Jamal described Medford as "quiet and calm." "When it's dark there at night, it's really dark," he said.

He hopes to live and go to school in Medford starting this summer. Because of his great-uncle's and aunt's advanced ages and small home, Jamal will stay with a close family friend, who has three younger children. A teenage cousin lives just two blocks away, and their high school, which Jamal thinks looks like a college campus, is five blocks away.

"I'm excited," he said about the changes ahead.

Jamal is one of 3,000 kids in 40 states who Campbell estimates connected with relatives because of similar concerted search efforts.

Advocates say the state should require all county child welfare agencies to find children's families in this way. Assembly Majority Leader Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista (Los Angeles County), introduced legislation this year mandating that county agencies use search software to connect lonely foster kids with their extended families. Assembly Bill 149 is in committee.

Caption: Jamal Claybourne, 15, gets a hug from Bryden Perini, 5, a member of a family Jamal will stay with this summer, neighbors of Jamal's great-uncle near Medford, Ore.