Family Finding in Mexico: A Challenge for State Agencies

The concept of family finding is pretty straight-forward. The Fostering Connections Act of 2008 requires the State to identify and notify parents, grandparents and other adult family members when a child is entering foster care. Some states have family finding specialists while others have Diligent Search Units that perform this due diligence to locate these family members. In many cases, relatives can be found in the U.S. using inexpensive services such as U.S. Search or other means. Access to information is abundant in the U.S. However, for Latino children entering foster care, this due diligence often hits an impassable barrier when their relatives live in Mexico.One of the biggest challenges for the State and non-profit organizations that are contracted to perform this mandated due diligence is that their staff may have little or no (family finding) experience in identifying and locating family members living in Mexico. Familiarity with Spanish is a key problem. Most U.S. agency case workers don’t speak or read Spanish. This ignorance of the language makes even the gathering and utilization of information challenging.One state agency requested help from a company specializing in family finding in Mexico. The case involved a foster child where all her family members lived in Mexico. The case worker listed two cities in a Mexican state where the biological mother could be living. The family finding specialist assigned to the case discovered that there was no second city. The second “city name” was in reality the name of the street where the mother lived. This misunderstanding occurred because the case worker who did the fact gathering interview did not understanding Spanish enough to know that they were being given a street address.Another challenge for these agencies and organizations is that staff often lacks knowledge about the structure of Spanish names. Mexico names are comprised of first name(s) and two last names. As a general rule, Mexicans do not have initials for a proper name. If someone’s name is Juan Carlos, then that is very likely their name. This person would not be called simply Juan or Carlos. As for the last names, the first one is the father’s last name followed by the mother’s last name.Unfortunately, many case workers are unfamiliar with the structure of Spanish names. This lack of knowledge can result in a significant amount of wasted time, energy and cost. There have been some situations where family finding efforts for a biological parent in Mexico led to no results. The family finding specialist went back to the client to review all the information including the parent’s last names. It was at this point that clients revealed that they had put the mother’s last name first, followed by the father’s last name.It’s unrealistic for the State and non-profit organizations to assume that their staff can perform competent family finding for biological family members in Mexico with no knowledge of the language or culture of Mexico. Kevin Campbell, fonder of the Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness, wrote, “Conducting a hopeful search for an individual in Mexico requires additional knowledge and information differing from the United States.” This lack of expertise is ultimately detrimental to the foster child. Concerted efforts to help Latino foster children can be deflected and, in some case, result in a child spending additional years in foster care with no contact or relations with their family. Every child welfare official I have spoken to is adamant on one point: children need to form bonds with their biological family even if the child is ultimately adopted by a foster family.The law is clear. The State and those agencies contracted by the State have a legal, if not moral, obligation to do their utmost to identify and notify a parent and other adult family members for every child entering foster care. These same organizations must provide their staff with the proper family finding training so more Latino foster children can know the joys of having contact with their parents and adult family members in Mexico. As one Child Welfare supervisor said, “If just one child can be united with their family, it’s a victory.”