Alisa Matheson hoped she could find someone to adopt the likable 15-year-old girl whose previous adoption had fallen through, landing her back in foster care.
“She had no people who came to visit her or knew her who weren’t paid to do so,” said Matheson, an adoption recruiter with Evolve, a private, nonprofit Twin Cities adoption agency.
Using an online search engine and the teen’s records, Matheson sent letters to anyone who had known her before or during the 15 years she’d been in foster care, including biological relatives. She told letter recipients she was compiling a “family storybook” for the girl and was trying to collect anecdotes and pictures.
Immediately, the agency got a call from the girl’s cousin, who had been trying to locate her for years. Matheson reunited them, and they are moving toward permanent adoption.
For Matheson, such detective work is increasingly part of the job. While adoption agencies were once reluctant to contact people from a foster child’s past, even biological relatives, today they’re open to exploring every adoption option a child has. And they use technology, from social media like Facebook to sophisticated search engines, to track down the long-lost connections.
“We’ve had some pretty exciting cases where our work has really produced a family for a child,” said Nancy Lyner, Evolve’s development director.
Her sleuthing results in an “appropriate and willing” adoptive home 25 to 30 percent of the time, Matheson said.
Evolve, which has Stillwater, St. Paul and Edina locations, receives cases from Dakota, Washington and Ramsey counties when social workers there need help finding an adoptive home for a child whose parents have had their rights terminated.
It’s not unusual for those who have had contact with the child protection system to be estranged from family because of chemical dependency, mental health or other issues, said Misty Coonce, an Evolve program manager.
Adding to the challenge, county social workers may be overburdened, or have trouble getting family members to respond to them because of negative past experiences, Coonce said.
Sarah Amundson, children’s services division manager for Washington County, said Evolve has been “a wonderful resource.”
“It’s another person with time and energy to put toward finding a permanent family for kids,” Amundson said. “Without them, adoption staff would have to carry their full caseload and also have to [search for families] full time.”
“Adoption detectives” like Matheson are helpful in other ways, said Amundson. Their searches may turn up long-lost connections who want a relationship with the child, even if they aren’t interested in adoption, or can provide them with old photos or stories.
Jennifer Mog, a middle school teacher in Dakota County, was contacted by Matheson last fall on Facebook. Matheson had been scouring the records of a young girl and saw references to Mog. They met for coffee.
Matheson was assembling a scrapbook of the girl’s life and wondered if Mog could help, since she gathered the two had been close.
“That’s very good work,” Mog said. “I don’t know how she found that out.”
Mog dug up pictures of her with the student and gave them to Matheson. She also saw the rest of the scrapbook and was impressed. Though Mog hasn’t stayed in contact with the student, who was adopted and moved away, she was impressed with Matheson’s tenacity, she said.
“She goes above and beyond,” Mog said. “I can only imagine it meant a lot [to the student].”