Jennifer Jacobs was a U.S. Army veteran, nuclear engineer and physicist who spent most of her career working to counter nuclear terrorism, until she met Jessica Stern.
Stern had a background in philanthropy and communications. A few years ago, she was awarded the key to the city of Destin, Florida, for organizing volunteers to support the World Food Program, which led to feeding more than 50,000 people locally and globally. Organizing that effort led her to begin running political campaigns and service in state government. Then she met Jacobs.
The two women eventually combined their backgrounds, talents and knowledge to create a nonprofit organization called “Connect Our Kids,” which is pioneering technology to find families, build connections and create community for children in foster care.
“We decided that the foster care space needed a dynamic software platform to help bring the power of family and community to children in foster care,” Jacobs said as she and Stern stood on the main stage before an audience of thousands at RootsTech 2023. “We combined the concept of my broad, visual paper tree with the counterterrorism software and online FamilySearch tool functionalities. And we made it into this.”
Jacobs and Stern, accompanied by a group from their organization, told their story and explained how it is helping foster kids connect with their family heritage Friday, March 3, in the Salt Palace Convention Center during RootsTech.
“Knowing your family history helps you know who you are and where you come from. This information helps to heal trauma,” Stern said. “FamilySearch is an incredible and powerful tool for children in foster care to discover their roots, which leads to healing trauma and moving into adulthood with confidence.”
“The theme of RootsTech 2023 is ‘Uniting,’” said Jen Allen, director of RootsTech. “We are pleased to use the RootsTech platform to help raise awareness for this important cause of uniting children with family members who can help them succeed in life.”
How Connect Our Kids got started
Twelve years ago, Jacobs was tracking nuclear material around the globe when she read a Time magazine article about foster care. She noticed a similarity in what foster care professionals needed to do to find families for the kids in their care, and the tools that intelligence analysts use to find and track terrorist numbers.
“I realized though that while the intel space has multimillion-dollar software, with data search and management tool capabilities, social workers doing the same kinds of work have Post-It notes and Microsoft Word,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs and Stern spent the next six years learning about foster care, especially about how social workers find and engage families.
“We learned that many of us have a misunderstanding about children in foster care,” Jacobs said. “They are not usually effectively orphans; they have people. The challenge is finding those people and asking them to help. This can be resource intensive, especially if you have to use Post-it notes and Excel spreadsheets to keep track of it.”
To help social workers, Jacobs had the idea to create a large family tree using online tools.
“Eventually, I decided that bringing innovative intelligence tools to foster care would be my next mission,” Jacobs said.
When Stern met Jacobs, she was preparing to start her own family. In thinking a lot about her own mother and motherhood, she realized she didn’t know very much about her.
One week after Stern’s mother died of breast cancer, she and her seven brothers and sisters were separated and placed into three foster homes.
“My family as I knew it was gone,” Stern said. “Almost every memory of my mother had disappeared. I was just 10 years old.”
Stern learned more about her mother by reaching out to extended family members who she did not get to grow up around, as well as the community of her hometown in St. Mary’s, Ohio.
“These candid conversations led to discoveries that shaped me as a mother and the work that I do today,” she said. “This newly discovered information led to an understanding, and it gave me the ability to step into motherhood with confidence and joy.”
Connecting foster children with their families
Before Connect Our Kids, social workers and volunteers had only their own sleuthing skills and a combination of web searches, telephone calls, knocking on doors and social media searches — an arduous and time-intensive process.
With Family Connections, an online and mobile app, the search process can begin in seconds from a smartphone.
“We are creating connection and belonging for all of our kiddos who need it the most,” Stern said.
Connect Our Kids relies on more than 300 public databases to help child welfare professionals find potential connections to living relatives for those in the foster care system.
“Our software now helps kids in care stay connected or reconnect with their family members and natural supports,” Jacobs said. “Genealogy is making life-changing differences for children who become disconnected from their people through no fault of their own. Your work in genealogy helps build connections that could completely change a young person’s life.”
Jacobs said more than 500,000 children and families are involved in foster care in the United States. Not all experiences end happily.
“Long-term foster care can have disastrous outcomes,” she said. “By age 26, two-thirds of those who leave foster care without ever finding that promised forever family have experienced homelessness, incarceration or they are dead. If they remain disconnected, these young adults die at 10 times the rate of their peers. Without the supportive connections and family that humans need to survive, disconnected youth in foster care can easily fall victim to human traffickers.”
Here are three examples where Connect Our Kids was able to help.
Calvin was a 17-year-old in foster care in Oregon who didn’t know anyone from his biological family. As a result, Jacobs said, the young man came to believe he was “trash.”
His social worker was one of the first to try Connect Our Kids’ pilot program three years ago. The worker was able to locate Calvin’s paternal grandmother, who, as it turned out, still had pictures of him as a toddler on her wall.
“He hadn’t been thrown away. He was lost,” Jacobs said. “Calvin learned that not only had he not been thrown away, but he had actually been named for the family’s hero, his great grandfather, who had been a respected law enforcement officer.”
A pregnant young woman in Ohio named Tammy was about to turn 21, which meant she would leave the extended foster care program and likely move to a homeless shelter. Using the resources provided by Connect Our Kids and a DNA test, relatives were found within a week. No one in the family had heard news of her in more than 18 years.
Jelani Freeman, a lawyer from Washington, D.C., was one of the first to sign on as an adviser with Connect Our Kids. After aging out of the foster care system at age 18, Freeman spent a decade looking for his biological family.
“From Jelani’s guidance and experience we now have the power to make sure every child knows who they are and where they come from,” Stern said.
Freeman was sitting on the front row and was invited to stand as the crowd applauded.
“It meant a lot,” he said of the tribute. “Since I’ve gone through the foster care system, the only thing I’ve wanted to do is give back. In some small way, my story being shared gives back and gives hope for other younger kids going through the foster care system now.”
7 years ago ConnectOurKids had a dream to one day tell @familysearch and @Ancestry how their work changes the lives of children in foster care. Today the dream comes true. #RootsTech #RootsTech2023 #RootsTechConference #RootsTechConnect #Unity #Belonging @RootsTechConf pic.twitter.com/DXaIKDNDLW— ConnectOurKids (@ConnectOurKids) March 3, 2023
The Family Connections platform is available free to child welfare professionals at ConnectOurKids.org.
“These stories highlight the importance of what you all do,” Jacobs said, referring to family historians and genealogy enthusiasts. “When you build out your family tree and share it online you are helping put together connections and unite or reunite families. For some children, it can even be the difference between life and death.”