#HackFosterCare: Taking Advantage of Technology in Foster Care

In May of 2016, the White House held a special “hackathon” for foster care as a part of the “#HackFosterCare” initiative. Hackathons are events in which problems are presented that the participants attempt to solve with programming solutions, and former foster youth and founder of Think Of Us Sixto Cancel embraced this idea as a way for communities to approach technology in foster care.

Coder working hard at developing new technology in foster care.

The child welfare system is large and, when including the sea of nonprofits and associated organizations, has many working parts. As the nation moves forward and attempts to ensure that the system serves its children as best as it can, the integration of technological solutions becomes a necessity. From social media to smartphones, foster parents, foster children, social workers and volunteers are constantly changing the technology they engage with and through. Because of the changing tides of tech, foster care organizations have a unique opportunity to re-investigate and resolve problems that crop up because of their own consistent evolution.

It’s this opportunity that Cancel hopes to seize by hosting foster care hackathons across the country.

As one of the first hackathons, last May’s event was successful. The White House announced several technology initiatives that will help child welfare agencies across the nation. The Comprehensive Child Welfare Information Systems (CCWIS) Regulations, for instance, are intended at building and streamlining information systems in each state. Under the CCWIS, states may access additional funding to apply towards a content management system (CMS) that can collect case file information and share it to all relevant parties. Its primary aim is to allow states to identify their specific needs and then custom-design a system that accommodates them in ways that the existing Statewide or Tribal Automated Child Welfare Information Systems (S/TACWIS) might not. The S/TACWIS system was introduced in 1993, and contains 51 regulations and standards that states may find too rigid when dealing with their case file information. Under CCWIS, newly developed statewide databases have only 14 regulations that constrain their design. Although most states already have running databases under CCWIS, at least 8 states have new CCWIS-regulated databases in planning or under development, some of which are being converted from older S/TACWIS sources. In New Jersey, for instance, the NJSPIRIT database was built in 2010 but conformed to the CCWIS standards.

Alongside the CCWIS, the White House developed the Get My Future website, aimed at helping youth who are aging out find health and career services, as well as many other programs that can assist them in succeeding once they leave foster care. Sites like these operate on the premise that simply developing solutions is no longer enough and that the nation must make use of technology in foster care to create accessible platforms for distribution. In other words, once there’s a program to help someone in the child welfare system they must know about it and can make use of it easily, and that means tapping into their computer screens and smartphones to make it convenient for them.

The federal government is not the only source of technology in foster care, however. Cancel is determined to make hackathons independent events that bring the community and the government together. “Be unapologetic,” Cancel said. “Your primary mission is to serve our own brothers and sisters who have been in foster care.” His call-to-action for youth applies to nonprofit efforts across the country as well. One such effort is the iFoster website, which connects not only foster youth and parents but also affiliates and organizations. Through iFoster, foster youth, foster parents and foster care agencies can all come together in a single place.

Although known as the “world wide web,” the internet can be leveraged on a much more local level as well. Each year, more and more technological solutions are cropping up from state regulated agencies as well as local child welfare organizations. In Ventura County, California, they’ve developed FosterVCKids.com, a website aimed at making the management of a foster child’s important documents and health records easier for everyone. By supplementing the county-level child welfare system, FosterVCKids helps foster parents “have the support they need to offer quality care.”

For New Jersey’s part in working with technology in foster care, Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS), a foster care nonprofit, has taken a number of steps in recent years to begin “hacking foster care.”

  • Train Online Webinars and Online Trainings, which improve ease of access to mandatory and informational trainings for resource parents.
  • Online Applications, which improve ease of access for resource parents and foster youth using programs like Dreamers and Believers, We Heart Birthdays and the NJFC Scholars Program.
  • Leveraging Google Analytics for websites and internet campaigns, which helps FAFS understand its users and how they prefer to interface with technology, allowing FAFS to increase outreach to both resource parents and donors.
  • Expansion of Social Media Presence, which improves our direct connection to resource parents as well as the connectivity between individual resource parents and helps to spread information about programs and services.

As a direct result of the social media push, FAFS has even started fielding questions from resource parents over Facebook Messenger. Recent questions include community meet-up inquiries, foster parents reaching out to find someone to talk to and someone interested in becoming a new foster parent. Where previously questions could be lost behind a forgotten phone number or misplaced flier, finding help in foster care today can be as easy as sending a message.

At the time this article was published, the most recent hackathon event will have just taken place – the Silicon Valley Hack Foster Care Summit at Microsoft Headquarters. “We came up with our three pillars: improving access to technology by providing laptops and internet access to foster youth, reforming the foster care system and technology infrastructure and preparing foster youth for college and careers,” said Priya Mistry, an event co-chair.

By investing in technology in foster care, child welfare agencies have the chance to increase the accessibility of important information as well as improve the level of care each foster child receives. The efforts of individuals like Cancel who truly understand the experience of foster care will enable our states to continually provide the best outcomes for foster chidren.

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