On December 2, 2014, Baker & McKenzie LLP’s North American pro bono practice teamed with Google Inc. to cosponsor the “Children’s Rights Summit: Disrupting Barriers Innovating Solutions” at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. This first-of-its-kind summit convened current and former foster youth, child attorneys, in-house counsel, law firm attorneys, and corporate and technology leaders to consider ways that social innovation could be used to transform public systems and improve outcomes for vulnerable children and youth. Attendees discussed challenges faced by vulnerable youth in an overburdened system, the significance of accessing and protecting youth data and records, and ways that innovation and technology can create solutions to these pressing social issues.
Agents of Change
The idea for a summit had been on the minds of Baker & McKenzie’s pro bono leaders for many years. “We often talked about hosting an event to bring together those in our community dedicated to children’s rights issues,” commented Keith Wurster, the Palo Alto Pro Bono Committee cochair. The idea was simple. Bring together agents of change to make a joint commitment and raise awareness about the needs of our most vulnerable population. In 2014, the timing was right to make the event possible. The planning committee structured the day to maximize interaction among the participants, including discussion groups, a town hall meeting, and brainstorming sessions.
“The first call was to Google to partner with us in this effort and they were eager to join us,” noted Wurster. Angela Vigil, Baker & McKenzie’s Pro Bono Partner, and the rest of the San Francisco/Palo Alto Pro Bono Committee reached out to their contacts at youth law and youth advocacy organizations, inviting them to attend the event, speak, and share their stories. Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, commented, “My child advocate colleagues and I were excited to be part of this unique event where we could share our insights and simultaneously learn from others. Our backgrounds differ, but our passion for more just lives for our most vulnerable children is shared.”
Lawyers and advocates gathered in Google’s headquarters to take an afternoon away from their busy days and apply their intellect to the issues facing the most vulnerable youth in the state of California and our country. In-house counsel and nonlawyer professionals answered the call, attending from over 25 significant companies in Silicon Valley.
Summit attendees discussed many of the challenges facing vulnerable youth, and took the opportunity to brainstorm potential ways to address the most pressing needs of our children. Many of these ideas were grounded in the fundamental idea that technology can be better leveraged to address these issues. Susan Jang, associate corporate counsel at Google, noted, “Technology isn’t a solution to all these issues, but it can help us make smarter decisions about where to allocate resources, design smarter systems to protect vulnerable children, and create new online platforms to empower them.”
The key theme was a shared appreciation for the urgent and universal appeal to give every child a better future. The purpose was to provide a forum and start a dialog among agents of change. Ideas for change creation began to flow almost immediately. Rodriguez, a former foster youth herself, described the event: “It was energizing and inspiring to vision how our diverse partnership might help solve the challenges facing vulnerable children and youth in our justice and child welfare systems.” According to Vigil and others in attendance, the energy was palpable, and organizers plan to harness that energy and capitalize on this unique opportunity. “Our goal is not to have this be just a half-day of reflection,” Vigil explained, “we want to use the Summit as a means to create ground-breaking meaningful change.”
Vulnerable Children and Youth: A Pressing Social Issue
By fostering an open dialog, the Children’s Rights Summit provided a collaborative environment in which to confront these challenging issues. Most people see the plight of abused, neglected, exploited, and homeless children as a tragic problem that only affects the victims. However, the data makes it clear that this issue has broad-reaching social consequences. In 2013, there were 20.8 million youth between the ages of 14–17 in the United States. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that during a given year, approximately 380,000 unaccompanied, single youth under the age of 18 experience an episode of homelessness for longer than one week. “Youth,” Nat’l Alliance to End Homelessness, (last visited Mar. 14, 2015). Most children experience homelessness because they have run away from abusive situations. “Nearly 70% of young people who become homeless say they became homeless in order to escape physical and sexual abuse as a child, neglect, and other violent crimes happening in their homes[.]” “Helping Homeless Youth,” Safe Horizon. Many of these same children and youth end up in the foster care or juvenile justice systems. In 2012, there were 396,792 children in foster care, of which 162,029 were between the ages of 11–20 years old. Annie E. Casey Found., Children in Foster Care by Age Group (2014).
Negative well-being outcomes increase exponentially for youth who have been involved with the child welfare system. Homelessness, incarceration, sexual exploitation, and unemployment are much more common for system-involved youth than for teens and young adults raised in more stable environments. As thousands of foster youth reach adulthood each year, their worsening circumstances affect public systems and strain the economic resources of communities. The Children’s Rights Summit addressed these issues head-on and focused on potential avenues to improve these outcomes.
A Case Study: Hannah’s Story
After six years in foster care, 17-year-old Hannah was poised to finally have a happy ending. Permanency, high school graduation, and college were within her grasp. But just before her senior year, she learned that her graduation was in jeopardy because of multiple placement and school changes. Then a change in agency policy threatened her chance to have a guardian and a permanent home. Sadly, this was hardly the worst experience of Hannah’s life. Before entering foster care, she had survived the death of her mother only to be repeatedly betrayed by caregivers who failed to protect her from multiple perpetrators and years of abuse.
Regrettably, this time Hannah was failed by a system charged with her protection and rehabilitation. By the time she turned 17, she had been placed in four psychiatric residential facilities and attended five different high schools. Her medical and school records rarely followed her. She was prescribed a plethora of psychotropic medications by multiple providers. She also experienced continual disruption of her education. Because of ever-changing case workers, no one possessed sufficient knowledge of her case history to adequately oversee her treatment and education. Accordingly, Hannah’s mental health and education suffered. Yet she survived. With the support of caring adults and her child attorney, Hannah is preparing to graduate this spring and is blossoming into a bright, stable, and talented young woman.
By child welfare standards, Hannah’s story is a “success.” But she still faces an uncertain future. Former foster children are entitled to aid and support after leaving foster care. But the same systemic issues that impede the progress of children in foster care often become even greater obstacles after those children transition to independence. Competing policies, limited resources, and the challenges of maneuvering a convoluted and archaic system create barriers that prove to be insurmountable for many former foster youth. The abysmal outcomes of former foster youth epitomize a widening divide that continues to affect vulnerable youth long after their involvement with public systems ends.
Innovation as a Solution to Social Issues
We live in a culture in which innovation, collaboration, and technology are integral to the success of most industries and systems. The Children’s Rights Summit attendees explored ways of introducing social innovation into the child welfare space through new strategies designed to meet the social needs of vulnerable children. Technology and innovation are being used to address many pressing social issues. Some of these developments already target problems that many system-involved children and youth experience. For example, the 100,000 Homes Campaign created the Homeless Connector mobile app to connect homeless persons to permanent housing resources. Vision 2020 uses a mapping system to fight sexual exploitation globally; and EduKit helps disadvantaged youth connect to youth development programs. Innovation is also being used to impact other global social issues. A social worker in New York founded Music & Memory, a program that supplies MP3 players to combat the effects of Alzheimer’s. Google Earth Outreach is helping the Brazilian Amazon’s Surui tribe use android phones to fight deforestation.
However, even with this growing trend of using innovation, technology, and unlikely collaborative partnerships to solve social problems, little has changed for the systems that serve vulnerable children and youth. As we saw in Hannah’s case, many of the challenges that affect this population involve inadequate service coordination, limited resources, and the inefficient management of vital data and information. In an era in which technology, innovation, and collaboration are key to improving systems, Baker & McKenzie and Google’s Children Rights Summit takes a bold step to ignite the idea that social innovation can change the trajectory of vulnerable children and youth.
Participants in the Summit made a joint commitment to answer the call to action and raise awareness about the needs of our most vulnerable population. During the Summit, participants signed up on “I’m In” boards showing their solidarity and commitment to the overall mission as well as identifying their specific interest in targeted areas.
Earlier this year, attendees received the first of what Baker & McKenzie and Google expect to be several communications called “Change for Children” to encourage participants to reaffirm their interest in specific areas of change discussed during the day. The plan is to develop a set of goals for each of these working groups and to define success. The email to participants distilled down the discussions and ideas from the Summit into four different working groups.
1. Connectivity and fluency: driving technology solutions for foster youth. Google was an ideal backdrop for the Summit’s focus on technology. The technology available to help meet the needs of vulnerable children lags far beyond what is capable in 2015. Information that should be secret, such as arrest records and mental health details, is accessible by too many, while information that children need immediately, like doctor visit information and educational status, is frustratingly inaccessible on a timely basis. This group will discuss2. Fighting trafficking of children through reexamination. There is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the United States. With 100,000 children estimated to be in the sex trade in the United States each year, it is clear that the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated. Victims are trafficked both within and across international borders. Migrants as well as internally displaced persons are particularly vulnerable. This group will explore creative ways to tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges. These include
• information storage;
• bridging communication between systems that affect foster youth;
• management and protection of foster youth personal data;
• protecting children from dangerous websites; and
• fluidity of information through a “cloud” for foster children.
3. Reimagining foster parenting and foster care. Wildly apparent at the Summit was the failure of a system that neither celebrates nor adequately supports foster parents and placements for children. The moment a child requires the sanctity of a foster placement, he or she needs to be going to safe, expert, and well-supported caretakers. To make that happen, society needs to think more highly of and provide more expertise and resources to foster parents and the systems that support them. This working group will to consider big picture challenges of the foster care system, such as
• campaign for an online public information sessions focusing on victims of sex trafficking;
• strategies to identify victims in the system;
• awareness campaign of the trafficking issues;
• develop strategies to end treating rape as prostitution;
• develop strategies to end prosecuting minor offenders as adults; and
• extreme focus on providing holistic care for victims.
• reconsider efforts to recruit foster parents by thinking through the nonlegal lens of other skills and disciplines;
• a “campaign” for the empowerment of foster youth;
• a marketing campaign about the U.S. foster care system and how it needs to change;
• getting corporate employees to directly engage/experience issues of foster youth;
• consider school-based solutions to foster youth needs and using schools for early intervention for at-risk youth; and
• consider a revamp of the system we use to care for youth who have been abused, neglected, and abandoned.
4. Reconsidering detention and criminal justice for children. At the highest levels of judicial consideration in the last five years has been the question of what is an appropriate answer to children who commit crimes—especially serious crimes. We are at a crossroads of change about how to think about child offenders and how to truly serve and rehabilitate them. There remain challenging failures in the juvenile justice system that must be addressed.
• Youth detained even pretrial are denied access to the one tool that is the bridge to success, education, and personal development in this age—the Internet.
• Examinations of the system are needed to make it work better to serve children involved rather than punishing them.
• Children accused of crimes emerge from unsuccessful schools and in communities where little is expected of them and little support is provided.
Each of these working groups is starting to organize meetings and calls, and the groups are looking for more like-minded individuals interested in making the ideas and solutions discussed during the Children’s Right Summit actionable. Beyond these organized meetings, and perhaps even more inspiring, there are individuals and small groups working on their own, bolstered by the energy and spirit of the Summit to make change in their own way. Whether developing a software application to inform and educate parents, or starting a dialog across the public and private sector aisle, good things are happening.
Vigil commented, “By working together we are more efficient and effective. Together we are better.” These words proved true. Baker & McKenzie and Google are already in discussions for the Children’s Rights Summit 2.0. Look for its release in early December 2015. Between now and then, the participants in the inaugural Summit will be hard at work making change for children a reality. For more information, and to get involved, please contact Keith Wurster or Amanda Kottke.
Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, Children’s Rights Summit, foster care, social innovation, human trafficking, juvenile justice