Rhode Island's Unconventional Approach to Foster Care

Weekly Article
Tom Wang / Shutterstock.com
June 14, 2018

At any given time in the United States, a staggering 400,000-plus children are in foster care. Regrettably, there aren’t enough people—whether relatives or licensed foster parents—to take in all these children. On top of that, there are even fewer homes available when you take into account that each child needs to be placed in a home suited to her particular needs and characteristics. For instance, a three-year-old placed in a group home with 50 other children, or placed in a foster home two hours away from her grandmother or her preschool, might technically be “safe,” but she surely doesn’t feel at home. And in 2016, the median time a child spent in foster care was 13.9 months— a very long time to be away from Grandma.

Rhode Island, in particular, has struggled to find enough homes, especially enough of the right homes—those that speak the same language and are in the same school district and are near relatives, among many other potential criteria for making a good match. This issue is only magnified by the fact that the foster family on-boarding process is extensive and confusing, and often takes over a year to complete. All applications are received and processed on paper, making it difficult to keep track of each applicant’s status, not to mention time-consuming to pass the file from person to person.

And yet, in recent years, Rhode Island’s approach to foster care has begun to improve—and it’s become an example of the fact that, sometimes, technology isn’t the silver bullet we make it out to be.

The team at the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) responsible for recruiting and on-boarding new resource families is small but scrappy. Its members spend hours on tasks you wouldn’t necessarily expect, like trying to match Blueberry the cat’s medical records, which just arrived in the mail, to the right family’s folder, since up-to-date pet vaccinations are a licensing requirement. This also means that, despite everyone’s best and most heroic efforts, these new families can experience the kind of frustration that ultimately causes them to drop out of the process, before ever taking in a child. The consequences of an overwhelmed staff and outdated process are clear: 75 percent of teenage foster children in Rhode Island are never placed with a family.

When I talk to fellow technologists about the challenges across the country in foster care, they often ask what they believe are glaringly obvious questions: Why not just use big data and machine-learning to solve the problem? Why not just match kids to homes with an algorithm? Why not just replace an aging IT system with Salesforce, or just put a form online to automate the process?

I admit that when I first started working in government, I had many of the same questions. But if working in government taught me anything, it was that, when it comes to issues like foster care, nothing’s ever just as simple as using technology.

As the Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, from 2013-2017, one of my main responsibilities was recruiting private-sector technologists. During interviews, as I described some of the challenges before us, many applicants would rush to propose an obvious private-sector solution: Just move your applications to the cloud. Just use Google Docs. Just make a website through which veterans can apply for all their benefits. Again: just, just, just.

Modern technology isn’t a cure-all, and a change of any kind—technical or not—in a large bureaucracy will always have attendant consequences downstream. At the VA, moving a single application to the cloud for the first time required years of full-time work. From this, we learned the hard way the human costs of shifting to a cloud environment with a workforce that only has expertise with an on-premise data center, and has been given zero access to training. Clearly, the notion of making an online application was more complicated than it may have seemed to the casual observer.

So, what did we do? And what implications might this work have for states beyond Rhode Island?

With no technology other than an Excel spreadsheet, the Rhode Island DCYF team organized a weekend event designed to get as many pending families as possible through their outstanding licensing requirements, a process that normally takes months to complete. Fingerprinting for background checks was on-site, staff members were on hand to answer questions and navigate edge cases, and training classes were offered so that families could finish the hours they needed over the course of one weekend. In addition, a physician was on-site to complete free physicals for those who may not have their own primary care provider. In the end, 174 families completed the weekend.

Above all, this meant that many more families were available for the hundreds of at-risk children in Rhode Island who needed safe homes.

But there was, too, an unexpected outcome from that weekend: the sense of community participants developed. Many described the weekend like a sort of summer camp, and appreciated meeting others whom they could lean on for support. That sense of community could mean that these families are more likely to foster longer and band together to support some of the children more difficult to place, like a group of five siblings.

If we’d taken the suggestions of the technologists I met—just build an online form!—opportunities like these, that allowed for human connection and community-building, would’ve been missed entirely.

Will technology be able to help the Rhode Island team better support these 174 new families, and continue to recruit and support new ones? Absolutely. Plus, some exciting technology modernization is already underway for DCYF. But Rhode Island also proved that you can get meaningful results with some process change and a spreadsheet. People there haven’t let technology dictate the path forward, and they haven’t waited to get results for children who don’t have time to wait. They forged ahead with the tools they had, while simultaneously working on a long-term technology plan that will be deeply informed by the needs of users, thanks to the initial groundwork.

Importantly, these lessons learned extend beyond Rhode Island. Foster care has no shortage of challenges across the United States, and there’s no tech magic that will definitively solve all (or, truly, any) of them. Rather, it’s typically the dedicated employees on the front lines, day after day, who see the challenges, know how to approach them, and come up with the checklists and wall charts that move the needle for at-risk children every day. As technologists, the best way we can help is to listen to these employees’ expertise and find ways to scale those checklists, freeing up their time away from data-entry and toward more face time with the real humans who need their help.

We ought to stop talking about just making a website or a form or a cloud-based system, because for too many problems, technology just isn’t the answer. Once we realize that, we can take stock of the tools we have, establish a plan, and do the kind of resourceful work that’d even make Angus MacGyver proud.

Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network.