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New foster, adoption tools now available in Ohio

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Ohio is leading the way in using technology and other resources to connect foster children with stable and potentially permanent homes.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Director Matt Damschroder announced Tuesday morning that Ohio is the first state to implement two technology tools from Connect Our Kids. They were joined by partners from InnovateOhio, Kinnect, the Dave Thomas Foundation, and Ohio CASA.

The Family Connections tool is a genogram, or a digital diagram that illustrates an individual’s family members. Professionals can use the desktop or mobile app versions to build family trees, find family contact information and engage family and supporters of children in foster care. The People Search tool uses public information from over 300 sources and covers over 3 billion people to exponentially expand the pool of potential kinship caregivers, far beyond just those in current contact with the child’s parents.

The announcement was made on the final day of November, National Adoption Month. Husted, who was himself adopted, said improving the adoption and foster care system has been a priority of Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration.

Belmont County DJFS Director Jeff Felton sees considerable potential in these tools. He said he first learned of the Connect Our Kids program during a presentation this fall at a DJFS Association Conference.

“I was in a workshop on this very subject,” Felton said, adding he has met founder Jennifer Jacobs. “She worked at Homeland Security trying to find bad guys, so they used all of these public available search engines … anything that was available to the public. She said, ‘If we can find bad guys, we should be able to find kinship kin relatives for kids in foster care,'” Felton said.

They look at every free website to search for kin. It’s web-based. … You search for anybody who has a connection to the child that you’re searching.”

Felton said departments will also be able to use some paid search engines to search for extended family.

“When we get involved with a family, we try to look at Facebook to see who their friends are, who their parents are, it’s very simple,” he said. “But we haven’t done that in a very systematic in every case kind of circumstance.

“If they have to go into foster care with a stranger, we try to make sure they spend as little time as possible in stranger care before we get them to kin,” Felton said. “Kids really deserve to be with their kin, their relatives, if they can’t be with their parents, so these programs are really designed to keep kids connected to their family.”

He said the expanded services will be invaluable.

“We’re pretty limited to searching in Belmont County or neighboring counties,” he said. “These search engines are nationwide. There may be a former step-grandparent who may live in Florida or South Carolina.”

Felton said DJFS offices have interstate compacts with other states to place foster children. They also have a thorough vetting process.

Damschroder spoke about other programs his agency facilitated, including “30 Days to Family,” which focuses on placement soon after children enter the foster system, and the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids partnership, which helps older youth.

Felton commended the state’s plan to expand the 30 Days to Family program.

“We’re one of the counties that 30 Days is expanding to. It’s a very intensive family search and engagement program to help identify kids’ kinship either before they come into care or right after coming into foster care to keep them connected to their family, community and culture. We’re really excited,” Felton said. “It pays for a special case worker that does nothing but look at kin. It has resources for two years, and then it’s up to the county to support on it’s own.”

Felton expects to be able to institute the program in the first quarter of 2022.

“We’re excited to be part of this 30 Days to Family and also to use this Connect our Kids tool to further enhance what we’re doing,” Felton said.

Felton said another development is the state’s continuing commitment to Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, an initiative started by Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas to facilitate adoption for children in permanent custody.

“It’s a very good program, and they’re going to invest an additional $1.8 million each year,” Felton said. “There are 3,175 children waiting to be adopted in Ohio, so that additional investment in Wendy’s Wonderful Kids will hopefully provide a worker that does nothing but try to find a specific home for each.”

He said his agency has finalized 13 adoptions this year, the most in several years.

“For a county our size and the number of children we have in care, 13 adoption finalizations is really, really good,” Felton said. “Really happy with our court and the work my staff has put into finding these permanent homes. Most of the kids who get adopted are adopted by the foster families.”

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