How detective work is being used to rescue kids from the foster care system

Foster care private detectives do what understaffed and under-resourced government agencies can’t — find permanent homes for foster care teens
July 24, 2018, 4:07pm

Tom Prudden and Ashlynn Stiles spend much of their working week knocking on doors across Missouri, hoping to find someone willing to let them in to talk about adopting a child.

Prudden, a retired cop, and Stiles, a former preschool teacher, work for Foster Adopt Connect, a private family service agency in Kansas City. They call themselves “Extreme Recruiters,” an experimental team of child welfare workers who travel across Missouri to track down family members who can adopt teenagers before they age out of the foster care system. Each year, 23,000 teenagers across the country leave the system at the age of 18 without finding a permanent home.

The Extreme Recruitment model, which is both publicly and privately funded, was created in 2008 by Melanie Scheetz of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition in St. Louis, to support the overburdened case loads of state child welfare workers, who can work with up to 30 foster kids at one time.

“Traditionally, the state is looking for June and Ward Cleaver,” says Prudden. “The perfect family doesn’t exist. We’re looking for good enough.”

Often, the people Prudden and his team find are unaware that they even have a relative in the system. After being approached by Extreme Recruitment, Nadine Jackson recently moved from Minnesota to Missouri to adopt 17-year-old Tyjuan, her biological grandson who had lived in nine different group homes in the last eight years.

“When you’re in the system you’re limited [in] what you can do because there’s always somebody watching, there’s always somebody telling you what to do,” says Tyjuan. “Here, I can do stuff like be a normal teenager.”

Reconnections like Tyjuan's and Nadine's has led to a growing interest in the Extreme Recruitment model, as well as their sister initiative, 30 Days to Family, which searches for family members at the beginning of a child’s entrance into foster care.

VICE News sat down with them to see what lengths Extreme Recruiters will go to in order to place a child in a permanent home.

Nadine Jackson and her paternal grandson Tyjuan, 17, spend time in their living room on a summer afternoon. Tyjuan was adopted by Nadine early May of this year after the Extreme Recruiters of FosterAdopt Connect located Nadine and connected her to housing in order to make the adoption official. (Cassandra Giraldo/VICE News)

Tyjuan, 17, reclines in the apartment he lives in with his paternal grandma Nadine. Before his grandmother adopted him in May, Tyjuan had been in nine different foster care placements over the span of eight years. (Cassandra Giraldo/VICE News)

This segment originally aired July 17, 2018 on VICE News Tonight on HBO.