October 03, 2016 Articles

The White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon

By Frank P. Cervone

The White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon engaged the challenge of using computer technology and the Internet to solve complex legal and social service problems facing children, families, and professionals in the child welfare system. Hosted by the Administration on Children and Families (ACF), the child welfare arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the gathering convened more than 150 lawyers, techies, and former foster youth at the White House for two intense days of brainstorming, software design, and information sharing. The sessions were held at the White House and the Reagan Federal Office Building on May 26–27, 2016, and were led by ACF Commissioner Rafael Lopez, White House Policy Advisor Molly Dillon, and HHS Chief Technology Officer Susannah Fox.

The White House hackathon builds on the work of two Children’s Rights Summits hosted by Baker & McKenzie and Google in December 2014 and 2015 in Silicon Valley. Amanda Kottke & Trenny Stovall, “Baker & McKenzie and Google Host Children’s Rights Summit,” Children’s Rights Litigation, Mar. 25, 2015. The summits focused on the interaction between technology and children’s rights. Workgroups in the White House Hackathon developed digital solutions and legal principles to address information sharing across the child welfare system.

ACF Commissioner Lopez challenged the group to imagine trying “something dramatically different to change a system we know does not yield better results for children and families in the system. How do we engage, across multiple sectors, the kind of talent and creativity that we need to rethink and reimagine foster care in America?”

The Obama administration has prioritized digital access to help fill gaps in knowledge and service in a wide variety of fields, while promoting cross-disciplinary and international participation in creative web-based problem solving. Other hackathons have engaged civic activists, technology experts, and entrepreneurs to build tools that help others in their own neighborhoods, experimenting with alternative ways to engage citizens in civic discourse. The 2016 White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon featured more than 20 former foster youth and foster parents and also included a software development team from Romania. With tools such as digital information lockers and all-new software platforms, workgroups “hacked” on topics that included substance-exposed newborns, homeless youth, foster family recruitment, youth empowerment, and preventing unplanned teen pregnancy.

Inside the larger group, about 20 lawyers met for a “Legal Hackathon” to explore the legal challenges to applying technology in child welfare. Angela Vigil, pro bono partner at Baker & McKenzie and leader of the Legal Hackathon, observed that

information about and related to children and families in the child welfare system is sometimes shared that should have been protected, and information is sometimes held that should have been shared in the child welfare system. These failures must be addressed in order to better serve the children the child welfare system was designed to serve.

Key stakeholders include children, biological parents, siblings and relatives, foster parents, courts, caseworkers, and both lawyer and non-lawyer advocates for children and their caregivers.

Vigil added that “a principled framework should govern the access, protection, and flow of information among and between these parties. Yet, no such holistic framework exists—although there are certainly laws that aim to govern some of this information access and protection.”

Seeking a legal and ethical framework to govern the flow of information between and among the stakeholders in the child welfare system, the Legal Workgroup drafted a “Bill of Rights for Information-Sharing in Child Welfare.” The following are among its key tenets:

• Children in care are entitled to access to and control, protection, and preservation of their information. (For example, it should be a rebuttable presumption that children have access to full information about their siblings in a developmentally appropriate and trauma-informed way.)

• The sharing of electronic information between agencies is authorized and expected where it is necessary to serve the children’s interests well.

• Caregivers need the information necessary to parent effectively. States need to be transparent about rules of sharing information with caregivers.

• Caseworkers need unlimited access to accurate information in all categories electronically, in real time and across sectors.

• Courts must have access to all relevant information necessary to make decisions about the children before them. Courts must insist on stakeholders bringing them everything they need.

Ira Lustbader, legal director of Children’s Rights, Inc., and cochair of the Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee, recalled that “in every single reform campaign or civil rights lawsuit” that he had been part of, “these issues of data and tech have been sources of profound frustration and profound potential to solve problems.” He said that “information on kids should be accessible across sectors, because it will lead to better outcomes. There’s a web of state and federal legal barriers, along with technological ones, that constrain the open access of information for kids across sectors. Some states have MOUs [memoranda of understanding] and other approaches to break down barriers” that we can promote and learn from.

The Legal Workgroup plans to continue its efforts in a series of conference calls and other work together over the next six months. The group has also recently completed another hackathon, at the National Association of Counsel for Children Conference in Philadelphia in August 2016. Over the next few months, members of the group will invite comment and improvement by experts and advocates across the nation. The result will be a platform on which local, state, and federal law development might be guided to better serve the children and other stakeholders in the child welfare system in the United States.

Below are links to video recordings of the proceedings:

White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon, May 26, 2016
White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon, May 27, 2016

Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, White House Foster Care & Technology Hackathon, Legal Hackathon, Bill of Rights for Information-Sharing in Child Welfare

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Frank P. Cervone – October 3, 2016