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McDill searches for family to help foster children

April 29, 2011

Garrett McDill works to find previously unidentified or lost family members who are willing to provide permanent adoptive homes for foster children who have been in the system for a long time.

Youth Villages in Middle Tennessee is finding family for many children who believed they had none.

How important is family? At Youth Villages, we know it’s everything.

Roots, a sense of who you are and where you came from, are important as children mature into young adults and strive for independence. In addition, family ideally brings a sense of trust, a person or group of people who can be counted on.

Children who have been in foster care or at a group home for some time need that crucial support. Many times, children are ready to live at home after finishing their Youth Villages program, but they have no identified family – and no means of support or security.

For such children, Garrett McDill can be an angel. She is part counselor, investigator and genealogist and full-time locator of family members and supports for many of Middle Tennessee’s youth. She’s been with Youth Villages for more than three years, and leads an effort to solve these unique cases.

Youth Villages’ family finders program is modeled after the St. Louis Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition’s Extreme Recruitment, which seeks out the foster children who are the hardest to find homes for and matches them with permanent adoptive families in a fraction of the time it usually takes. The group hosted Charmaine Kromer, Youth Villages’ Middle Tennessee director of programs, and she believed the program could possibly help many of the Nashville area’s young people.

“Finding a permanent home for these youth requires more resources and more investigation,” Kromer said. “It’s critical to their identity to find family members. Even if the family member isn’t able to adopt, visitation and communication with a family member help that youth make a connection with family they didn’t know they had.”

In about four months, McDill has been able to find family placements for six youth. Each story is unique, but all of them likely wouldn’t have happened without someone like McDill devoting full attention to the case.

McDill’s first successful case involved a girl who had been in and out of foster care and group homes for five years. She’d managed the turmoil of her uncertain future well, and had previous behavior issues under control. But she had nowhere to go.

“She had no interest in being adopted and no one had looked at her case for some time,” McDill said. “Then, I got involved and met with her and identified family members she knew of.”

With the assistance of private investigators, McDill identified many extended family members interested in helping the girl. After interviewing everyone, McDill identified an aunt who had been previously overlooked as a placement option. That aunt is going through the process to adopt the girl.

In another case, McDill located a barber in Shelbyville who was identified as a possible father for a youth whose mother had recently been released from jail but wasn’t able to take care of the child. After many phone attempts to reach him failed, McDill drove to Shelbyville and found his business.

“I walked in and said who I was,” she said. “I spoke with him for a while and found out he’d never been contacted before. He told me he wanted to be a father to his son.

A paternity test confirmed it and now, the 13-year-old spends weekends visiting a father he didn’t know he had, which is awesome.”

Finding families involves a lot of trial and error right now because there’s no set model that works every time.

“I use what’s effective,” McDill said. “Each case is unique. We never set out looking for a placement option; we start out looking for supports for the youth. They need to feel a connection to relatives and family members, especially if there’s a past there.”

After being successful with six children, the program recently added another staff member.

“The program is really taking off for us so far,” Kromer said. “With the addition of another staff member, we’ll be able to look into more cases and help more young people.”

It also exemplifies one of Youth Villages’ values: children are raised best by their families.

“Before we go to work on a case, these children are known only by their names,” McDill said. “But when we find family help for them, they become someone’s cousin or someone’s nephew. They become someone a family member cares about. It makes a huge difference.”

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