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Using CLEAR to Keep Children Out of Virginia’s Foster Care System

Finding family members is top priority.

Investigators using Thomson Reuters CLEAR can find many separate pieces of data about an individual – everything from car registration to property records to an arrest record. In the case of the investigators for the Virginia Department of Social Services (Va. DSS), however, the most valuable piece of information they can find is a child’s family member. In these cases, investigators use CLEAR to keep children out of the state’s foster care system by locating extended family members who may be able to take in and care for the child. In many of these cases, the family member may not have even known the child was in crisis and being considered for foster care; often, the found relative is eager to provide care and keep the child within the family.

Lora Smith, a Foster Care Policy Specialist at the Va. DSS Division of Family Services in Richmond, Va., says that before a child can be delivered into foster care, federal law requires her agency to notify the child’s relatives and try to keep the child out of the system. “We don’t want kids to come into foster care if we can help it,” Smith says. “So, prior to a child being removed and placed into the custody of the DSS, our workers will do a search and try to contact relatives and see if they can come up with another plan that doesn’t require custody being transferred to the department.”

And that’s where CLEAR comes in. Agency investigators will use CLEAR to search the records of both of the child’s birth parents and try to determine among the list of associated names that come up who might be related, or who might be a former friend, neighbor, roommate, or other connection. In a way, CLEAR allows Va. DSS investigators to create a sort of relationship tree that can help identify other family members who may be able to care for the child. “And some of our workers are really good about taking the research and actually sitting down with the birth parent and saying, ‘Here’s what we’re looking at – can you help me understand who these people are?’” Smith says.

“Of course, some birth parents react unfavorably to the search for other relatives and at times they are not willing to sit down with the worker to help facilitate this process,” she notes. “But we’re still required to send letters to relatives.”

Indeed, federal law requires that all possible relatives be located and contacted by letter at several stages in the intake process, including before and right after the child enters foster care, as well as throughout the child’s time in the foster system. The letters explain to a relative that a child they are related to may be going into the foster care system and what the options are if they would like to intervene and provide care for the child.

“It’s at this stage that using CLEAR becomes imperative. In most cases, it’s either one of two problems,” Smith explains. “Either DSS investigators might not know who all the relatives are and will need to determine their identity and then find them; or, if the agency has the names, it may not have any contact details or any way to get in touch with them.” This is when investigators will use the CLEAR search data to start making phone calls and run down addresses in the hopes that a viable family care option will present itself in order to keep the child out of foster care and into the care of a relative.

“We just have to start pulling what information we can from CLEAR, and then sift through that data and try to figure out who we believe to be relatives and then send them letters. I think sometimes that this part can be the most challenging,” she added.

Meghan Tertocha is a senior family preservation worker in Virginia’s Albemarle County Department of Social Services in Charlottesville, Va., and she said CLEAR research provides an invaluable starting point for finding relatives and keeping children out of the system.

“Sometimes, we don’t even know where the relatives are [so] we use CLEAR to verify phone numbers and addresses if we can’t find families in particular,” Tertocha says. “More often than not, when we’re using it to find extended family, we’ll pull CLEAR reports and pull out the names of potential relatives. Then, we’ll make phone calls and additional searches based off the information that we are able to find through the initial CLEAR searches.”

She noted that in addition to the DSS family service unit using CLEAR in this way, the state’s adoption team also uses CLEAR when children are at the point where they would be getting adopted, in an attempt see if there are any other relatives out there before moving forward with that final step.

“Sometimes, we don’t even know where the relatives are [so] we use CLEAR to verify phone numbers and addresses if we can’t find families in particular,” Tertocha says. “More often than not, when we’re using it to find extended family, we’ll pull CLEAR reports and pull out the names of potential relatives. Then, we’ll make phone calls and additional searches based off the information that we are able to find through the initial CLEAR searches.”

She noted that in addition to the DSS family service unit using CLEAR in this way, the state’s adoption team also uses CLEAR when children are at the point where they would be getting adopted, in an attempt see if there are any other relatives out there before moving forward with that final step.

All the while, investigators know the clock is ticking, even if the child enters the foster care system. Within 30 days of a child entering foster care, for example, Va. DSS is required to send a letter to all relatives informing the relative that the child has entered foster care and outlining their options to take custody of the child, become a foster parent to the child, or even just be a support for the child and help the child stay connected to their family.

“And really throughout the life of a foster care case – and kids can be in foster care for a year, two years, or longer – we’re required to periodically go back and look for relatives again,” Smith says, adding that there have been cases where a relative wasn’t in a position to really be able to help or support the child at that time, but a year later, may be able to care for the child. “That’s why we are required to keep going back to look for relatives. It’s not sufficient to, at the beginning of a case, look at the relatives and decide, ‘Oh, nobody’s viable’ and then just move on.”

Smith says she and her investigative workers strive to remember throughout this process that the well-being of a child in crisis is the most crucial factor – and that means continuing to search the CLEAR databases in the hopes of finding a viable and willing relative to provide the care that is often the best option. “We always want to keep the child from entering into the system in the first place, if proper family care can be found.”

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