Family Finding Helps Homeless Young People Connect to Caring Adults

A young Native American man.

When David,* a homeless young man receiving services at Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, traveled to the nearby Apache reservation this November, he was reconnecting with the family and community members lost to him when he was taken away as a child. That reunion—and the promise of ongoing, supportive relationships—was made possible through family finding, a six-step model designed to connect youth to a network of caring adults.

Historically used to help young people in the child welfare system, family finding gives agencies a structured approach to help youth identify and forge permanent relationships with relatives, family friends, and other trusted adults. With the proper tweaks, the model can also support unaccompanied homeless youth in need of their own lifelong connections, says Lisa Meier, Tumbleweed’s director of youth engagement.

We spoke with Meier and Family Finding Coordinator Robert Luft about Tumbleweed’s experiences adapting family finding for their runaway and homeless youth programs.  

[Discover a tool for gauging the strength of a young person’s network of supportive adults.]

A Matter of Time

Because programs for homeless youth are typically short-term and voluntary, staff members may only have a small window to help youth make positive connections. To accommodate this reality, Tumbleweed adjusted its intake process to include questions from the family finding model about the adults in young people’s lives. Having this “connectedness conversation” during intake rather than at a later point as recommended in the original model, Luft says, helps youth workers build rapport with new clients and explore family finding’s potential early on.

Timing also affects the number of face-to-face meetings held between young people and the adults willing to offer support. The program facilitates one in-person conversation in which adults pledge specific ways they will help a young person navigate adulthood, Luft says, compared to the three meetings listed in the model.

[Listen to a short podcast on how a caring adult helped a young man pursue his education.]

An Eye on Empowerment

Tumbleweed staff face a second challenge that many child welfare workers don't—a lack of guardianship that prevents them from taking certain actions on a young person’s behalf. The result, Meier says, is the need to sell youth on family finding’s benefits so they are willing to do their own leg work to get results.

To secure youth buy-in, Tumbleweed staff sought young people’s feedback on the program’s name. Those conversations led Tumbleweed to rename the model the “Forever Network,” Luft says, because of some young people’s discomfort using the word “family.”

Youth also created the format for a peer-driven support group facilitated by Tumbleweed staff. Support group members help each other follow through on action items like calling relatives, Meier says, and to cope with difficult emotions they may experience taking those steps.

Indeed, putting family finding in the hands of young people teaches them the skills and resources they need to carve out their own safe, stable futures. As Meier shares, “It's taking them from that point of loneliness to [a life of] purpose and meaning.”

[Learn about an agency that fosters permanent connections with adults for transition-age youth.]

*Name has been changed.


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