Wider family members and other key people are invited to a family group conference to discuss ways they can offer lifelong support to the child
There is evidence the approach improves placement stability and other key outcomes
Feelings of detachment and isolation can have a major impact on the wellbeing of children in care.
The aim of Lifelong Links, currently being trialled in parts of the UK by the Family Rights Group (FRG), is to identify relatives and other key adults willing to offer the kind of lasting support that can make all the difference.
The approach draws on the family-finding model developed in the US and family group conferences, which were introduced to the UK from New Zealand by FRG and have since become an established part of safeguarding practice.
It involves trained co-ordinators researching a child's family history. They go on to convene a family group conference with those relatives and adults willing to commit to a "lifelong support plan" that is incorporated into the child's care plan.
The hope is that increasing the number of safe and supportive relationships in children's lives will help them flourish, leading to fewer placement breakdowns, improved emotional and mental health, increased engagement in education and better long-term prospects.
"There is lots of good research showing the importance for those who have been most isolated of having healthy relationships and a support network around them," explains FRG chief executive Cathy Ashley.
"It is also about understanding identity and self and safety - as we know lots of youngsters are doing this searching behind the back of their social worker rather than in full view."
Clandestine searching is not only dangerous from a safeguarding point of view but also because the emotional fallout from being rejected can be huge, she adds.
The trial, funded by the Department for Education's Children's Social Care Innovation Programme, will see seven local authorities in England test Lifelong Links. FRG is raising funds for formal pilots in Glasgow and Edinburgh - where the approach is already established - and also hopes to trial it in Wales.
Evaluation evidence from the US suggests the approach is most effective for children who are relatively new to care so the trial will focus mainly on those aged under 16 who have been looked after for three years or less and are in residential or foster care with no plans to return home or be adopted.
Social workers at Edinburgh City Council started doing "extended network searches" to trace family members for children in care in October 2015 but the authority has since honed its approach.
Presenting a child with a comprehensive family tree and information about people's lives and jobs and other achievements is powerful in itself, explains Stuart Graham, family group conference co-ordinator with responsibility for Lifelong Links.
"For a kid where their only knowledge of family is drug addiction, alcohol and violence, that has a massive impact," he says. "They start seeing themselves differently."
This has led to a shift in perceptions among social workers and managers about the capacity within families previously characterised by a "narrative of failure", adds Gillian Christian, family group decision making team leader.
The project is not about finding relatives to come forward and offer placements to children. It may lead to regular face-to-face contact but even something as simple as sending a child a birthday card every year can give them a sense of belonging.
Bringing wider family together to discuss their capacity to support a child is different from a standard family group conference and meetings tend to be "more emotional", explains Graham.
"Normal family meetings are driven by a crisis and a decision has to be made quickly but this is a different, longer-term approach," he adds.
It is also vital children are supported and prepared. "It has to be led by the young person," says Graham. "Sometimes the process has to stop because the young person can't deal with it and that's fine - it can be revisited later on."
Evaluations of the family-finding model in the US have shown it leads to children being more connected with wider family. In North Carolina, an average of 34 undiscovered family members were identified for each child. At least one family member agreed to ongoing contact in 63 per cent of cases.
There is also evidence the approach leads to greater stability for children. In San Francisco, children recently taken into care were offered family finding. Half had a stable foster placement with no changes compared with just 33 per cent in a control group.
Evaluation is in its early stages in Edinburgh but an internal review in January found the authority had worked with 32 young people and carried out 30 detailed searches with an average of 40 family members found per child.
Christian and Graham say they have seen a remarkable difference in some children. For example, one boy who previously experienced numerous placement breakdowns is now "more stable than he's ever been" after contact with an aunt.