Hacking Our Way into Child Welfare

Two weeks ago I attended the White House Hackathon for Foster Care. It was an amazing event. I mean that literally — I was amazed. Yes, technology can connect, edify, make cumbersome processes more efficient, collect kaleidoscopic facts into coherent overviews. We know that. And child welfare has lagged behind other sectors in adopting technology to improve its work. We know that, too. That’s not news.

Here’s what was: throwing a load of tech entrepreneurs together with a bunch of foster care policy makers and administrators. No two professional sectors could possibly be more different. One is bursting with can-do energy, determined to solve any problem that comes its way because that’s how it stays in business. The other is resigned to can’t-do stagnation because for a million reasons, change is just too hard. Change is expensive, it’s complicated, it’s annoying, and it seems always — always — to involve lots of lawyers.

Because you can’t really share, crunch and reorganize data across state agencies.

You can’t really have caseworkers checking their clients’ progress on smartphone apps.

You can’t really develop a web platform that helps foster families and foster kids get along better.

Web-based cognitive behavioral therapy? Please.

But as we heard at the May 26-27 Hackathon, some progressive states, cities, counties and private nonprofits have done all these things and more. First-generation college students are being ‘nudged’ through their application processes by automated text messages; young people in foster care are being mentored via smartphone; young women at high risk for unplanned pregnancy are being reminded via text to refill their prescriptions for birth control pills. Suicidal youth are flocking to textlines, and homeless youth are checking for available shelter beds and booking them by phone.

Colab's hacking team. In 12 hours, these three coders from California developed an app for homeless youth. Next step: piloting it.

Colab’s hacking team. In 12 hours, these three coders from California developed an app for homeless youth. Next step: piloting it.

The technology ‘screen’ is giving youth much-desired anonymity while offering a chance for real connection to real people. The young person decides how far and fast to go.

And it turns out that data-based technological solutions — the cornerstone of efforts by states to really get a handle on, say, so called cross-system youth — are not only possible, but they’re legal, too. Laws preventing agencies from sharing information are more phantom than fact, it seems — and HHS officials have agreed, saying they will create new guidance encouraging state agencies to share information whenever doing so would help them serve a child or family better.

The tech companies who sent hacking teams to the White House — Microsoft, Colab and others — promised ongoing support. It seems that, like lots of other potential allies, they’re more than willing to contribute time and talent if child welfare professionals can frame the projects for them.

As we at Youth Catalytics work with our partner Think of Us — one of the sponsors of the event — on a relationship coaching app for youth in foster care, we’re keeping a close eye on these heartening developments. As one speaker pointed out, the future is already here, it just hasn’t been evenly distributed.

Now it’s child welfare’s turn.

~ Melanie Reisinger Wilson








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