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Looking for Families Beyond International Borders

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Multinational business, immigration, military or diplomatic service--these are just a few of many reasons families spread across the globe. Some extended families are still geographically close, but more and more Americans--and by extension, American children--have relatives living abroad. It's worth it for professionals to take notice of this trend, and consider the likelihood that a child entering or already in the foster care system has relatives outside of the United States who may be able to provide a home or valuable resources for him or her.

International Social Services (ISS) helps connect or reconnect children and families across international boundaries. The U.S. branch, ISS-USA, serves as an intermediary between caseworkers in the United Sates and child welfare officials in foreign countries to ensure the best possible placement outcome for a child. Whether permanent or temporary, intercountry placement can be a challenge, but CWLA member agency ISS-USA is committed to making it easier.

The first thing caseworkers must remember is that it's not only children who appear to be foreign-born who have family in other countries. "In our diverse society, someone's appearance and mannerisms are no longer comprehensive indicators for where someone's family is from," says Felicity Sackville Northcott, director of the Arthur C. Helton Institute, a program of ISS-USA funded by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. "Someone could come from a military family, or have relatives who retired abroad."

Northcott believes that there is a simple way a caseworker can get the reunification process moving. "Simply ask kids if they have family outside of the jurisdiction. If a social worker asks that one question and the answer is 'yes,' that opens the door to many other questions that can eventually lead to finding family members," she says. If a child is too young to communicate, a social worker can search for relatives in the United States who may not be able to care for the child themselves, but can answer questions about the likelihood of international relatives.

ISS-USA provides a variety of services integral to the placement of children with appropriate kinship relations internationally. "Borders should not be barriers," says Julie Gilbert Rosicky, the executive director of ISS-USA. "However, there's a tendency in foster care to look close by for possible family members rather than to seek out family members who live in another country."

When researching a foster child's family members in foreign countries, ISS-USA emphasizes that the goal is not always potential placement. "These extended families can also become resources," Rosicky says. "A relative can send postcards, call on a birthday, provide a vacation place, or be a resource later when the child ages out of the system. This makes a huge difference in the life of a child. It's about making these connections."

In a 2009 Child Welfare journal article, Jodi Berger Cardoso and coauthors addressed this question directly in the title: "What Happens When Family Resources Are Across International Boundaries?" Cardoso and her colleagues focused on kinship placement in Mexican immigrant families, but the challenges they outline apply to most cross-border work: "Key barriers to international kinship placement include lack of accurate information concerning international placements and conflicting agency mandates. Lack of child protective services policy enforcement also plays a role," the article's abstract noted.

Drawing from the Hague Conventions, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and United Nations guidelines, ISS-USA observes the international or domestic standards in place. Although a multitude of barriers may stand in the way between a child's reunification with a family member or relocation to a different country, ISS-USA has the resources through its international network to make it possible. "Children have a right to their culture and to their families," says Rosicky. "If we can enable cooperation between social workers, judges, and all of the affected parties, we're that much closer to enabling the best outcome for a child."

Services offered by ISS-USA include research on family members for possible placement, the organization of international home studies, international mediation for custody and visitation, postplacement follow-up, and repatriation of U.S. citizens from abroad (this includes unaccompanied minors). Currently, grant activities are focused primarily within New Jersey and aim to remove barriers to placing children in New Jersey foster care with their relatives who live in other countries when appropriate--ISS-USA coordinates home studies to ensure the desirability of potential placement. Since January, ISS-USA has enabled more than a dozen children to be placed with families outside the United States.

ISS-USA has affiliates in more than 100 countries. "Our partners are natives of their countries, so they're fluent in cultural norms well as their laws and languages," says Susan Oslund, ISS-USA's Director of International Services. ISS-USA uses its comprehensive international network to advocate for children within the context of the country's legal system. "It's difficult enough navigating the laws in between states. In between countries there are more barriers," Rosicky acknowledges. To navigate international laws and organize reunification efforts for children and their families, ISS-USA works across disciplines as well as physical borders. ISS-USA's contacts span from social workers and government officials to lawyers specializing in international family law matters.

Northcott has a vision for the future of child welfare. She believes the first step is to integrate the subject of globalization into the majority of the courses required to attain a social work degree rather than to isolate globalization as a specialty. "International should not be only a specialty--it should be in the framework of general classes. Social workers have to know what their obligations are. Education has to change," she asserts. "Although we're still stuck in a domestic model... ISS-USA is on a mission to change that."

Laural Hobbes is an editorial intern at CWLA.

Bridging the Gap

Bridge Meadows is a new development in Portland, Oregon, made up of 9 houses, 27 apartments, and 40 people. The housing is available only to families with three or more adopted foster children and senior citizens demonstrating financial need. This hybrid community promotes a mutually beneficial relationship for each generation based on contributions to the community. To receive decreased rent, older members must volunteer 10 hours each week, often interacting with families to build community bonds in the process. In the future, Bridge Meadows hopes to be self-funded with rents, fundraisers, and donations.

Sharing Experiences

This summer, Friends of Children, Inc., helped Massachusetts children in foster care express themselves through photographs. Children were given cameras to photograph meaningful things in their lives. The touching pictures were exhibited in an Amherst gallery for public viewing. With a decrease in foster care funding and an increase in the amount of Massachusetts children in foster care, Friends of Children, Inc., hopes the exhibit raises awareness for foster care funding and continues to be an avenue of expression for children. They hope to one day make it a national awareness program.

Saving Souls from Smoke

Gateway, a CWLA member agency in Alabama, recently began the "820 Souls Campaign" to increase awareness of the negative effects second-hand smoke is having on Alabama residents. The campaign focuses on preventing the 820 deaths that occur in the state each year on average due to exposure to second-hand smoke. Gateway staff collected 100 shoes to use as a backdrop for speakers to address issues related to lung cancer. The campaign is driven by SmokeFree Alabama, the American Lung Association, and others dedicated to second-hand smoke awareness and prevention.

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