by Mary Fuller, COO and Co-founder of Hack the Hood
Last month, we joined leaders within tech, philanthropy, the social sector, the White House, and former foster youth who convened at Google in San Francisco to think of ways that technology could help improve the foster care system. The result was a four point call to action to make sure we leverage the best tech has to offer to support the most vulnerable in our society. Here it is:
1) Increase Computer Access for Foster Youth
In 2015, the average American spent 11 hours on computers and other devices doing just about everything: searching for jobs, making a living, learning new skills, connecting with family and friends, reading the news, accessing health and other services, advocating for issues that are important to them, and of course watching cat videos. Many of us take that kind of access to technology for granted - as well as the benefits that come with it - but for foster youth, it’s a much different story.
Only 21% of foster youth in our nation’s cities have regular access to computers, and even worse, only 5% of foster youth in rural communities have this access. When so much of our economy, our education system, and our social lives are now online, this amounts to cutting off oxygen.
Creating real computer and internet access for foster youth would truly connect the disconnected - to education, jobs, essential services, health information, and to people and relationships they might otherwise lose. Cloud services can also serve as a safe place to keep essential documents, photos, and videos that can help connect them to their own history and facilitate transitions and accessing services. No more lost paperwork, no more lost memories.
According to Serita Cox, CEO of iFoster, it would take only $15 million to make sure that every foster youth has a laptop. But previous efforts to supply youth with refurbished machines haven’t been enough. True access must go further. Our youth deserve quality internet access, training, and technical support to make this work.
2) Leverage the power of data to improve the whole system
What if the technology that online advertisers use to feed us customized ads were used to help inform foster youth about support services that could help them thrive? What if the technology that Yelp uses to give us social recommendations for where to go to dinner could help foster children and youth confidentially rate the services they receive - or instantaneously report and document abuses at group or foster homes? What if there was a unified database used across agencies that could eliminate duplicate data entry, reduce the time it takes to process requests, and shorten the time youth spend in transitions - speeding their way towards permanent placement?
These are transformative ideas. But before we can do all this, we have to rebuild a dilapidated technology infrastructure.
“I’m not going to stand here and defend a system I know is broken,” said Raphael Lopez, Commissioner of ACYF at the Shaping Solutions event. “We haven't updated the data system since 1993 - the system responsible for children - that's not acceptable. We are trying to rethink how this works. Child welfare workers don't have the basic technology or systems...None of our child welfare systems across the country can give us live data, so by the time we collect and process all the numbers and report them out, they’re already outdated.”
3) Recruitment, training and support for foster and fost/adopt families
There’s over 400,000 youth in the foster care system at any particular time in the US, with over 100,000 waiting for adoption. Only half as many are adopted each year. There’s a tremendous need for well-qualified foster and adoptive parents. Yet we spend so few resources on recruiting, training, matching, and supporting the foster families who take on this very special job.
I know from personal experience that technology has the potential to revolutionize this space. My partner and I had been agonizing for years over the decision of if or how we should bring kids into our family. In the end, it was it was a video on a website, that convinced us to adopt through the foster care system. As good media does, this short video humanized something that had been an abstract concept for me - it captured the sweet character of a set of three siblings, and their fondness for each other, that framed the decision in terms of real children with real hopes and dreams. It was what helped me imagine myself as a parent - as their parent.
That was in November 2012. A month later, we had submitted all our paperwork. From that point it took just shy of three years for us to be matched with our two children. We should probably finalize the adoption later this year, four years after our journey started. If I felt like the delay were due to scrutiny and care and the best interests of the children, I wouldn’t mind. But what infuriates me is that this kind of care was probably only 20% of the delay. The rest was caused by a system that still matches families using faxes and monthly meetings where social workers share binders of terrible photocopies of child and family profiles. Why?
4) Tech career training for foster youth
According to a multi-state study, 47 percent of former foster children are unemployed and more than 71 percent report an annual income of less than $25,000.
“We lead the nation in the income gap...in Silicon Valley...We have a highway that runs down the middle called 101 and the students in the Foster Care system never get to the other side,” says John Hogan of TeenForce, one of Hack the Hood’s partner organizations that places foster youth in internships and jobs in San Jose and surrounding areas.
Increasingly, basic technology skills are fundamental for anyone who wants a career with sustainable pay. We’re not doing enough to ensure that our foster care youth have the skills and tools they need to succeed as adults, whether it’s in a tech profession, or really any professional career.
Hack the Hood is one of many working hard to fill the gap in tech training for underserved youth. We run a 6-week bootcamp that teaches low-income youth of color how to build websites for small local businesses. In the process, youth build soft skills and learn customer service, as well as getting exposed to local entrepreneurs, tech professionals, and companies. About 15% of our youth are in the child welfare system, and we partner with organizations like the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund and Teenforce so they can replicate their program specifically for the foster care population. Programs and organizations such as these are critical for supporting foster youth as they learn about tech careers and gain skills, AND also for building peer and mentoring relationships that can help foster youth develop their interest, engagement, and sense of connection to a community that can support their lifelong learning.
What can you do?
There is a cross-sector movement building that has a vision of applying smart tech solutions to nagging problems in the system that - in the end - re-traumatize children. Consider this an invitation to join the movement. Here’s three things you can do right now to further the cause:
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