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Davis has a knack for investigating, finding families

November 25, 2011

Andrea Davis' experience as a counselor has helped when speaking with family members when she’s locating supports for youth who’ve been in state custody.

Some of them are easy. Maybe a simple online search or connecting through Facebook brings out family members of a child who has been in state custody for some time.

But many of them aren’t easy, and involve exhaustive investigation, countless phone calls and interviews with family acquaintances.

Andrea Davis makes calls and investigates – an uncle out-of-state, interviews with former foster families, searching online databases – to complete a puzzle for each young person, to find forgotten family. Many of the youth have spent years in state custody. Through terminated parental rights, stays at numerous foster and group homes and changing names, many young people in Youth Villages’ programs for extended periods of time don’t know if they have any family. They can’t tell you where any of their family members are. In many cases, the youth have simply fallen victim to a system that protected them.

Andrea takes on these cases and finds family for these youth. She has a knack for getting information, acting on even the most remote clues to identify aunts, cousins and other family members, many of whom are more than willing to take in or be a support for the young people. It’s not a job for someone who quits easily.

“Andrea’s very passionate about helping young people find permanency,” said Avery Duncan, Youth Villages regional supervisor. “She never gives up. Even faced with barriers, she perseveres and stays positive. When Andrea’s given a goal, she does whatever it takes to achieve that goal.”

A few months ago, Andrea took on a young person’s case that first involved a search through a national database that listed the youth’s mother as deceased since 2007.

The mother’s last known address was in Iowa. She found a partial obituary that reported the mother was killed along with her fiancee in an auto accident in Wisconsin. Andrea then searched national databases and was able to contact the fiancé’s extended family to find out what funeral home was used. Then a phone call to the funeral home revealed the names of the mother’s family members. Those relatives have been contacted and some are taking steps to take in the youth permanently. And while the youth was in custody in West Tennessee, none of the family contacted is from Tennessee.

“Because many of our youth are from out of state, there’s a huge need for someone to locate supports and family members,” Andrea said. “It’s rewarding at the end of it when a young person in one of our programs has family members and supports they can count on.”

The program was piloted in Nashville, but has since spread statewide. Youth Villages’ intensive family finder 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 program began in Memphis in January.

In another case, Andrea located a lost mother through Facebook. She was living out-of-state at the time, and the mother came to Memphis and picked up her daughter, who had aged out of state custody and was living in a homeless shelter.

“When I was younger, I actually wanted to go to the FBI and be a detective,” Andrea said.

She has binders full of information on her cases. Right now, she’s got five active cases. She starts with a genogram for each case, which constructs not only family relationships, but also identifies behavior, relationships and medical issues. She tries to fill them out as completely as possible.

“In many cases, it’s an ice-breaker when I first contact a family member,” Andrea said. “For the most part, families are very open and candid with me, even with more sensitive topics.”

Being a therapist, she’s able to assess quickly and ask the right questions. “Sometimes in speaking with a family member, I kick into counselor mode,” she said.
“But it can change the questions I’m asking and change the way I talk to them and get information.”

Because children are involved Davis’ call for help brings out the best in people.

“Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I’ve been surprised how many people go above and beyond to help,” she said.

Plans are under way to expand the recruiting initiative throughout many Youth Villages locations.

“Every child deserves to have a family, and this is another example of Youth Villages being innovative and creative when working with youth,” Avery said. “With anything new, it takes time to figure out the best way to do things. But Andrea has been very successful at quickly locating relatives willing to build connections with our youth.”

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