Cohort 3 Convening in St. Paul, MN: A guest post by intern Isabel Greenberg

Isabel Greenberg just completed her first year at Pitzer College in California. She is interning with Foster America for summer 2019 and attended the fellowship convening in St. Paul, Minnesota. In this post, she shares her reflections on the gathering:

As an intern at Foster America this summer, I had the chance to attend a quarterly convening in Minnesota with the fellows and staff. Each quarter during the 18-month fellowship program, fellows gather from across the country for a few days of collective training and reflection led by Foster America faculty. The convenings usually are located in a jurisdiction where fellows are currently placed, and include visits to local child welfare organizations. Since my start in May, tales of convenings past and hopes for future convenings floated around the office. So, I had a faint idea of what this magical convening was, but I did not fully know what to expect.

On Monday, June 24th we packed our bags and journeyed to the Twin Cities. Although I was already familiar with most of the Foster America staff, I had never met any of the fellows. Cohort 3 and some alumni from Cohorts 1 and 2 started trickling into the Union Depot conference room and just like that, the convening commenced. Foster America faculty member Brian Clapier, a University of Chicago Policy Fellow at Chapin Hall, led a session on the Theory of Change in which each Cohort 3 fellow shared their individual theories to small groups. This activity contextualized not only specific projects at the agencies but also the fellows as individuals. With such a solid foundation, I felt ready to take on the rest of the week.

The next day, Alicia Grunow, an expert at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, led a session on improvement science. I understood improvement science in terms of its general theory, but never knew the practices and procedures. Utilizing PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) cycles, both the fellows and the staff participated in an activity in which each group had to predict the next number in a sequence of a hypothetical technological initiative. I went into the convening expecting little of the material to directly apply to me, an undergrad student, but I quickly realized that each skill and theory taught were widely applicable and valuable for people of any age and any sector. 

Later that day we traveled via bus to Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis. Admittedly, this site visit was my favorite part of the convening. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, NAZ takes a two-generation, results focused approach to achieve Northside prosperity. With tools such as a family coach and partner sites—including schools and housing facilities—NAZ is committed to long-term support and solutions for predominantly African-American families living in the Northside of Minneapolis. Founder and CEO Sondra Samuels and her team carried themselves with such passion for their work. I saw that passion translate into results and success. The session at NAZ helped me see that with enough dedication and spirit, improvement is possible and no community is stagnant.

Sondra said something that resonated with everyone: “This community isn’t broken; the system is broken.” She used a gardening metaphor to explain her sentiments, along the lines of “when all the flowers die in a garden, you don’t blame the flowers. You blame the soil. We need to change the soil- the system- so that our people can thrive.” I will take those words with me into all the work that I do.

The state of Native Americans in the child welfare system was a major focus throughout the convening. We heard from speakers who represent the Minnesota Department of Human Services as well as county and local agencies. Among the presenters were Nikki Farago, Priscilla Day, Louise Matson, and Terri Yellowhammer, who informed the fellows and staff of the Native American experience in the system. Although the experience of white children in foster care has continuously improved in Minnesota, Native Children have the highest out of home placement rate in the country. Even with the Indian Child Welfare Act passed in 1978, some jurisdictions act as if it’s an optional law. What stood out to me most was the idea that this pain cannot be remedied by a single act or law. Healing between Native Americans and white people will take generations, just as it took generations to develop such a conduct of discrimination. That was a valuable lesson for me to learn: we must continuously make amends and support our Native American counterparts. This is a lifetime commitment. 

Although I did not entirely know what to expect for the convening, I can truthfully say that my expectations were exceeded and beyond. Thank you to all the fellows who welcomed me with open arms and gave me much needed career and life advice. I gained valuable skills and knowledge that I will take with me to my undergraduate life and one day to my professional life. I wish I could attend the next convening and all the ones after that!

Featured in McKinsey Social Responsibility Report

We are humbled and honored to be featured in the McKinsey & Company 2018 Social Responsibility Report.

McKinsey has worked with Foster America since the early stages of our launch in 2016. With support from several pro bono consulting teams, they have helped develop our initial business plan, design interview tools for fellowship candidates, create criteria for selecting agency partners, and build a strategy to achieve the financial sustainability that would enable it to expand its operations.

Thank you to board member Dan Stephens and all of the McKinsey consultants who have provided invaluable support for our growing organization.

Read the report here (Foster America is featured on page 44):

Collective Impact Updates from Colorado

As part of our third fellowship cohort, we placed a total of five fellows across different jurisdictions in the state of Colorado. This distribution has allowed us to explore whether a regional cohort may be more impactful than five individual fellows. So far, we believe the emerging evidence suggests the answer is yes.  Our fellows have accelerated one another in learning the child welfare landscape in Colorado. They have gotten a clearer picture of the system, been invited to more of the critical influencer tables, and moved information not only between one another but to additional stakeholders that they’re connected to in each of their placements.  They continue to explore whether they might have a more explicit role in amplifying and accelerating each other’s efforts, such as through a data-sharing approach, a prevention-focused shared project, or a multi-fellow effort on implementing some component of Family First. Read on for additional details about our fellows’ work in Colorado since January 2019:

At the Colorado Human Services Directors Association, Yumiko Dougherty is heavily involved in the coordination of Family First implementation planning and a range of prevention-oriented activities at various levels - statewide, regionally, and with individual counties. Key achievements include collaborating with key stakeholders to establish and launch a Family First governance structure that deepens and formalizes a strong voice for counties. An emerging core theme for her work with the Human Services Directors Association is working with counties to identify key priorities and concerns, translating them into actionable strategies or policies, and working with other partners toward implementation. Coordinating the feedback loop between the state and the large number and range of different counties is a critical ingredient for successful systems change, and Yumiko is playing a major role in facilitation, communication, and change management.

Mollie Bradlee is coordinating the implementation of the state’s three Pay for Success initiatives at the Colorado Department of Human Services, all to benefit vulnerable children and families. The projects include an initiative to improve educational outcomes for youth in foster care, an initiative to reduce future systems involvement for Denver runaway youth, and an initiative to expand an evidence-based therapeutic intervention to underserved regions of Colorado. She’s successfully stewarding the many relationships – practitioners, county leaders, state leaders, researchers, philanthropists, and program participants – that keep these projects moving forward. Emerging from the work on these initiatives is a clear sense that the flow of data between the state and counties across various units of government (for example, local child welfare agencies and school systems) is a barrier to truly understanding and improving child and family outcomes. Performance management, data sharing, and flow of information for informed decision-making are emerging as key areas of focus for her fellowship.

Meanwhile in Douglas County, Jeff Tran has already built a user-ready analysis tool for the county leaders and supervisors. He has programmed using Microsoft PowerBI an application to pull and integrate data from the TRAILS data system, linking its administrative and financial data. Douglas County now has a simple, visual, readily-accessible way to see which children and families are getting what services and what the total investment in different service types are. This enables the county to answer - easily and in real-time - questions about where they are at relative to budget, how service use is similar and/or different by worker/supervisory team, and what the total investment by different service types are.  Jeff will continue to expand capabilities for this tool, and after testing it further in Douglas County, it could also be spread to other counties. Additionally, Jeff will be working with service providers as well as the judicial system to continuously monitor and improve outcomes for children and families.

Becca Frank has been working with the City and County of Denver to hone in on the key initial purpose/functionality of the client-facing technology they are building. Through her listening tour with stakeholders and observational research of the current client experience, she and the team are taking a deeper look at two potential first areas of focus – one is accessing economic benefits like SNAP and EBT without calling or visiting the county offices, the other is connecting families to additional services and resources. The next phase of her work is user feedback. She’ll be pursuing this work in several rounds, beginning from open-ended interviews, which Becca and her team at Denver Human Services will conduct, and progressing to consultant-supported methods, including sharing prototypes for rapid feedback.

Finally, Anthony Silverman is working to better coordinate those in Larimer County who support children and families to create better child welfare outcomes. His listening tour with stakeholders in Larimer revealed several high-leverage points for greater coordination. One strategy is to get those tracking outcomes for children - provider agencies, United Way, and philanthropy - to regularly collaborate. The strategic involvement of data professionals and influence for more of them to track and help decrease child maltreatment is an emergent approach that holds great promise.  The first project for this data professionals group is a service mapping tool, which will help show where services are dense and where there may be gaps. Another point of collaboration for Anthony is to find formal and informal “brokers” of services: those who help families connect to what they need to support their children. Anthony and Larimer County are working on a theory of change that these brokers are critical in reducing maltreatment. The ones that organically exist need more information about what services and supports families can access. In the communities where fewer brokers exist, these roles can be developed and serve as the first line of prevention.

Los Angeles County impact presentations

This week our five Los Angeles County Fellows presented their progress on innovation projects at the intersection of child welfare and mental health to a gathering of 100 county officials, philanthropic leaders, and community partners.

The presentation also included remarks from Department of Mental Health Director Dr. Jonathan Sherin, Casey Family Programs Senior Director Virgina Pryor, Parsons Foundation President & CEO Wendy Garen, and UCLA Pritzker Family Chair Tyrone Howard. We are thrilled to be part of this illustrious group of change-makers in Los Angeles County.

Kudos to our Los Angeles County fellows for their ongoing impact: John Drebinger III, Rebecca Kaplan, Andrea Lowe, Jermeen Sherman, and Sonya Soni.

Cohort 3 Convening in Denver, CO

April was an exciting month for our Cohort 3 fellows, as they met up with the Foster America team in Denver, Colorado for their first quarterly convening. Currently five of the C3 fellows are working in different Human Services agencies throughout Colorado, so this was a particularly special place to come together for collective learning and reflection. We loved reconnecting with the fellows face-to-face and hearing about their first few months at their agencies. Our programming dove deep into the federal child welfare finance landscape and developing individual leadership skills through project planning and team development. 

Highlights of the convening included:

  • Vision learning, led by Cohort 3 fellow SL Rao

  • Reflections from a panel of leaders in the Colorado child welfare sector

  • A tour of Tennyson Center for Children, an organization that provides a child-centered approach to healing through community-based, school, and residential programs.

  • Design Thinking workshop led by faculty member Jessica Mason

  • Data and Outcomes session with faculty member Brian Clapier

  • Meeting Facilitation skill building with faculty member Marianne Hughes.

  • Spoken word and improv lesson, led by Cohort 3 fellow Crystal Williams

  • A visit from the Colorado Governor, Jared Polis

We can’t wait to reconvene in June with the Cohort 3 fellows at our next training session in St. Paul, MN!

Executive Director Sherry Lachman introduces Governor Jared Polis to the Foster America fellows

Executive Director Sherry Lachman introduces Governor Jared Polis to the Foster America fellows

A Focus on Equity

Our fellows gathered in Montgomery, AL, on January 22, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for our first quarterly training and development convening of 2019. It was a fitting time and place to continue an ongoing conversation among fellows, faculty and guests about the impact of our nation’s history of racial injustice on today’s child welfare systems. 

A cornerstone of the weeklong training was an afternoon devoted to visiting the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Dr. Carol Spigner, professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and former Associate Commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, helped to prepare fellows for this experience. 

Dr. Spigner presented a brief history of child welfare, with particular focus on the treatment of children and families of color. She then led fellows and guests in a nuanced discussion of how this history has influenced today’s child welfare systems.

This connection between history and present-day practice is essential for fellows to fully grasp the systems they are entering. Dr. Spigner noted, “This history is alive today. We are not just fighting what’s in front of us. We are fighting 200 years of patterns, philosophy, ideology, and practice.”

Dr. Spigner ended her presentation with a slide that showed children and families of color at the center of an array of systems with unequal and unjust impacts—including education, housing, and criminal justice. She encouraged fellows to think not just about families’ individual strengths and needs but also how all of these structures present systemic barriers to their success and well-being.  

Foster America’s Founder and Executive Director Sherry Lachman re-emphasized this point in her introduction to the fellows’ afternoon at the Legacy Museum, citing the “conveyor belt” that moves disproportionate numbers of youth of color from our nation’s child welfare system into the criminal justice system. She noted that upwards of 70 percent of youth in the justice system have experienced the child welfare system.

“We can’t fix mass incarceration and the disproportionality in that broken system until we hit pause on the child welfare system’s conveyor belt to incarceration, and until we examine who winds up on this conveyor belt to begin with, and why,” Lachman said.

But it is not enough simply to diagnose inequity; we must actively work to dismantle it. At the convening, fellows presented updates on how their work is actively addressing systemic inequality. For example:

  • Minnesota’s state child welfare system has the most disproportionate outcomes in the country for Native American children, and an early data walk exercise organized by Foster America faculty made this painfully clear to Cohort 2 fellows Ryan Borowicz and Jennifer Worden. As a research analyst for the state, Borowicz includes race and equity measures in every dashboard his team creates. He is now part of a team examining racial differences at each decision point across the child welfare spectrum. In her fellowship role, Worden was asked to draft a statewide prevention plan; after an extensive listening tour, she successfully proposed making reduction of disproportionality for African American and Native American children in out-of-home care one of the plan’s two primary aims. Today, she is helping the state build capacity to benchmark and measure progress toward this goal, while local teams develop and test on-the-ground strategies to achieve it.

  • In New York City, improving racial equity has been an explicit goal for fellows placed at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). Cohort 2 fellow Sheela Bowler was tasked with completing an equity assessment mandated by Mayor de Blasio. As Bowler completes her fellowship, Cohort 3 fellow Danielle Maniscalo will carry this work forward as a consultant within ACS’s new Office of Equity Strategies. One of the office’s early challenges is to embed equity-focused measures into agency structures and systems in a way that creates institutional accountability beyond the current administration.

Solutions that effectively counter bias and dismantle racism are not easy to design and implement, particularly as structural inequality is deeply embedded in every facet of our system and lives. Our fellows have already demonstrated that they have what it takes to be successful in fields ranging from technology and data analytics to human-centered design. Trainings like the one in Montgomery are essential, however, to ensure fellows understand the historical context of child welfare and grow increasingly comfortable having uncomfortable conversations about race and equity.

It is equally critical for fellows to listen deeply to our jurisdictional partners, before jumping in with new ideas. That’s why they work closely with content experts on the ground, who are best positioned to understand root causes and posit solutions. Within that context, as newcomers with perspectives from other sectors, fellows are well positioned to begin asking questions that help those steeped in “how things have always been” envision new ways that the system can change for the better. 

We believe the potential for change is enormous, as each new cohort of fellows learns from those that precede it, and the Foster America movement gains momentum.

For now, Maniscalo notes, “Once you have seen the data, you can’t ignore it. We’re starting with a lot of data collection and embedding disproportionality into our daily conversation in a way that creates institutional accountability, so that we can’t shy away from it.”

At Foster America, we’re counting on it.

Cohort 3 Preservice Training

In January 2019, we hosted a two-week preservice training for our 18 new Foster America fellows. Cohort 3 first convened in Silver Spring, MD during the week of January 7th for an on-boarding curriculum that included cohort introductions, primers on child welfare and design thinking, and local site visits and reflection. Highlights of the first week included: 

  • Personal stories from a panel of foster care alumni

  • Remarks by Rafael Lopez, former commissioner of the national Administration on Children, Youth, & Families and Foster America board member

  • Visit to Baltimore County Department of Social Services, including a “day in the life” presentation by local caseworkers and dinner with Maryland’s Deputy Secretary, Randi Walters

  • Introduction to design thinking with faculty member Jessica Mason of Social Impact Studio

  • Introduction to adaptive leadership with faculty member Jeff Lawrence of Organizational Agility Advisors

Fellows spent the next week at their host agencies, beginning to meet local stakeholders and collecting baseline system data.

We reconvened with the Cohort 3 fellows from January 22-25 in Montgomery, AL for a second and final week of national preservice training, which doubled as a quarterly convening for our Cohort 2 fellows. This week included a visit the National Memorial of Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, a powerful opportunity for our fellows to consider the history of racial inequality and economic injustice in the United States. We approached this visit as a chance to confront the ongoing legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation in America, and reflect on how this legacy shaped our society and public systems, hoping to strengthen our team and fellows’ abilities to contribute to a more just future. Particularly given Foster America’s mission to change outcomes for children and families served by the national child welfare system, we designed our visit to help us and our fellows consider how our nation’s history of oppression and racial terror and trauma remain present in the child welfare system today. Other highlights of this training week included:

  • Remarks by Doug Nelson, former President and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation

  • Remarks by Dr. Carol Spigner about the history of child welfare

  • Presentation by Paul Vincent about Alabama’s child welfare system

  • Capstone impact presentations by Cohort 2 fellows

We look forward to sharing additional thoughts in a future blog post about the visit to the National Memorial of Peace & Justice and our commitment to addressing the inequities of the child welfare system.

Introducing Cohort 3

Please join us in welcoming 18 incredible Foster America fellows to our third cohort!

On January 7th, 2019, they started full-time, 18-month roles at child welfare, health and human services, and early childhood agencies nationwide that will use their skills to help keep more children safely out of foster care and improve the outcomes of children in foster care.

These talented fellows have expertise in human-centered design, program development, strategy and operations, data analytics, engineering, and finance.

We can't wait to share more. Watch the intro video on YouTube, and follow us on Twitter for an introduction to one fellow each week throughout spring 2019.  

Foster America Cohort 3 Fellows

Foster America Cohort 3 Fellows

November 2018 Finalist Days

November 2018 Finalist Days

This Friday and Monday, the Foster America team traveled to both coasts and completed Selection Days for fellowship candidates in Seattle and Washington, DC. Judges from a variety of backgrounds, including host agencies around the country, child welfare experts, and leaders from the business and nonprofit worlds, interviewed candidates and challenged them to develop visions for executing a better future for child welfare. 

"I Was in Foster Care. Family Separation Isn't Just a Problem at the Border": Foster America in Time Magazine

"I Was in Foster Care. Family Separation Isn't Just a Problem at the Border": Foster America in Time Magazine

Executive Director Sherry Lachman writes in Time Magazine about inequity and how we can better support families and kids in foster care. "Many children in the broader foster care system — particularly children of color — are separated from their families when preventive services could help their parents overcome the challenges, often poverty-related, that lead to their removal."

Read her article here.

Foster America’s Statement on Families Separated at our Borders

Foster America’s Statement on Families Separated at our Borders

Immigrant children and their parents are being cruelly and needlessly separated at our borders. We oppose this trauma and implore our federal government to expeditiously reunify separated families. Foster care is like chemotherapy: inherently toxic. We must work to ensure that foster care is a treatment reserved for children who truly need it to remain safe and healthy.

Foster Parent Recruitment Innovations in Rhode Island

Foster Parent Recruitment Innovations in Rhode Island

On March 9-11, 2018 the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth & Families hosted a first-of-its-kind foster parent training bootcamp. With over 200 families in attendance, this program accelerated much of the 10-week long training process for foster care licensing into an intensive, 3-day curriculum. Foster America fellow Adam Williams helped to organize this innovative training program to vastly increase the number of potential home-based placements for children in the state's care.

Cohort 2 Attends Preservice Training in Seattle

Following their week in Boston, our second cohort of fellows came together to complete their final week of preservice training in Seattle, WA from January 16-18, 2018. The week’s activities and speakers included:

  • A cocktail reception to celebrate the launch of the second Foster America fellowship cohort with honored guest Washington State Department of Children, Youth, & Families Secretary Ross Hunter;

  • A discussion about child welfare systems in the 21st century led by David Sanders, Ph.D., who is the Executive Vice President of Systems Improvement at Casey Family Programs;

  • A result based leadership data walk and workshop with Raj Chawla, Principal of The OCL Group;

  • A site to visit to nonprofit partners Treehouse and The Mockingbird Society

  • A panel on the use of data and technology in child welfare featuring Emily Putnam-Hornstei of the Children’s Data Network, Susan Smith, the Senior Director of Data Advocac for Casey Family Programs, and Brian Clapier, former Associate Commissioner for Research and Analysis at New York’s ACS.

Learning from and working with leaders in the child welfare sector, our Cohort 2 fellows gained vital information to begin their own projects at their new host agency sites. We look forward to following their progress and continuing to see all that they will accomplish througout the Foster America fellowship.

Sherry Lachman speaks on WNPR's Where We Live

Executive Director Sherry Lachman joined an impressive panel on today's episode of WNPR's "Where We Live" to speak about the intersection of the opioid crisis and child welfare in Connecticut and beyond.

Panelists on the program included:

Listen to the full episode online here.