At the Opportunity Nation Summit earlier this year, I caught up with Foster Skills founder, Marquis Cabrera. He is a tech entrepreneur who recognized the ongoing problems in the foster care system and set out to create a solution. He was also one of the Finding Fearless grant winners in 2012!
Though well intentioned, foster care continues to fail too many young people. The statistics paint a dismal future for a large portion of the 400,000 children and teens in foster care in the U.S. Of the current foster care population, 20,000 “age out,” meaning they are neither reunited with their families nor permanently placed in new homes. Additionally, 40 percent of former foster youth repeat one or more grades; between only 2 and 9 percent of former foster youth attain a bachelor’s degree; the average reading level of 17 and 18 year olds in foster care is only the 7th grade; it is estimated that between 11 and 37 percent experience homelessness after age 18 and 25 percent of foster youth are incarcerated within 2 years of “aging out.” According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, minorities represent a disproportionate percentage of the foster population in our country, compounding some of the issues this demographic has historically struggled with – academic under-achievement, unemployment and incarceration.
Why do these poor outcomes persist and what can be done?
Marquis has pinpointed the lack of real-time innovations, responsive, human-centered technology and community voice as the root causes of the consistently poor outcomes for foster youth, saying, “Government needs innovators to become more citizen-service-centric.”
Marquis and the Foster Skills team want to respond to this need by transforming the child welfare system in the U.S. They intend to fill the innovation gaps that allow foster youth to flounder socially and economically. They’re part of a new breed of nonprofit – social entrepreneurs that, like many emerging startups, wants to ramp up their use of technology to create faster solutions. However, Foster Skills wasn’t always a tech-oriented organization, and we’re excited to share the story of how their approach has evolved over time to better address the needs of the foster youth community.
The evolution of Foster Skills
Foster Skills began as a mentoring program to help foster youth get into college. However, they soon discovered that unaddressed funding gaps were still keeping college out of reach for many in the foster care system. In response, Foster Skills introduced Got Skills?, a work force development and job placement program that includes partnerships with State Street, Northeastern University and Boston Children’s Hospital, to provide foster youth with opportunities for meaningful employment.
As a fearless change-maker, Foster Skills champions rapid experimentation, creative partnerships and learning from failure. Accordingly, they were unsatisfied and impatient with their rate of impact. They wanted to do more to break down the remaining barriers to foster youth success, and they wanted to do it quickly. So they “reinvented Foster Skills,” because, as Marquis explained, “we are innovators and did not feel a traditional service-focused organization would create the change we wanted to see in the world. We wanted to have a more tangible impact that we could see now, not just 20 years down the road.”
Put simply, Foster Skills reinvented themselves as the “Quirky of child welfare.” They recently re-launched as a co-creation platform that invites the general public – including foster youth, foster parents, social workers and child welfare professionals – to contribute out of the box solutions and relevant ideas for the chance to win a prize. The Foster Skills team reviews, rapidly prototypes and markets the ideas with the most potential to tackle a “pain point,” as revenue generating subsidiaries. This new business model will allow them to continuously engage with their community and evolve in response to its needs.
A Foster Skills solution
The new crowd-sourcing platform led to the creation of ratemyfosterhome.com, a mobile application that collects real-time data updates on foster home conditions from the foster parents, foster youth and social workers. It is an easy to use, accessible tool for reporting any number of issues that might arise in a foster home situation – behavioral, emotional, communication breakdowns, etc. Each person involved in the foster care relationship can access it to improve reporting and response rates. Ratemyhome.com is one of many tools being developed, aimed at addressing the innovation gaps and barriers to success that drive Marquis and Foster Skills’ work. The real-time reporting collects and lifts up the voices of those engaged in the foster care environment; it delivers accessible, innovative technology applications to streamline a government service; and it promotes rapid, human-centered, responsive design.
We at the Case Foundation, like the team at Foster Skills, recognize that government offices have fewer opportunities than private organizations to incorporate experimentation and test innovative approaches. We are thrilled that more entrepreneurial organizations, like Foster Skills, are deploying their tech abilities to develop tools like ratemyfosterhome.com and are reaching outside their bubble to work with local governments to spread innovative solutions to a greater number of states, cities and neighborhoods. We hope their tools and partnerships continue to empower the foster community, creating more environments in which these 400,000 young people have a stronger start, so they too can thrive.
If you have an idea to improve the child welfare system that you would like to share with the Foster Skills team submit it here!
For more updates on the other Finding Fearless winners check out the blog post by Senior Director, Social Innovation, Sarah Koch, “Looking Back on Finding Fearless: Where are They Now?”.
For more on the opportunity for more innovation in government, see the Case Foundation’s CEO, Jean Case’s Forbes article, “Why Pay for Success Matters,” in which she discusses innovative, outcomes based, government funding models.