April 12, 2019

Fresh thinking fuels success of child-welfare programs

In her plenary speech before the ABA National Conference on Access to Justice for Children and Families,  held April 9-10 in Tysons Corner, Va., Sherry Lachman, founder and executive director of Foster America, pointed to four innovations that inspired her work: the fast-food drive-thru, the Mona Lisa, a glowing rabbit and the iPhone.

Each of these, she said, were the result of the “Medici effect,” which posits that the most powerful innovation results when people from diverse disciplines interact and influence each other.

Here’s what sparked the four innovations:
·       The drive-thru was inspired by watching pit-stops at car races
·       Leonardo Da Vinci studied science (including dissecting bodies) to create realistic portrayals of humans in his artwork
·       The green glowing rabbit was created through synthetic biology (a combination of biology and engineering)
·       Steve Jobs combined his passions for computing, design and Zen Buddhist architecture to create the iPhone.

Since 2016, Foster America has been recruiting professionals with skills and expertise that are critically needed but in short supply in the child welfare sector. The organization provides the training and tools for them to succeed in 18-month fellowships at child welfare agencies across America.

Lachman said that Foster America is not interested in leaders who are “excellent at implementing existing child welfare models.” The current model is not sufficient, she said, and it needs leaders “who will question assumptions and innovate.”

As a result, Foster America recruits from outside the child welfare sector, including from disciplines such as technology and data analytics, marketing, finance, strategy and operations. Then they place these professionals in full-time leadership roles in government and related child welfare agencies, alongside child welfare leaders “eager to partner with us,” she said.

Their aim is to “help the child welfare system address its oldest problems in new ways.”

Half of the fellows work on reform projects designed to reduce the rate of children who end up in foster care in the first place, and the other half work on reform projects to improve the outcome of kids in the foster care system.

Lachman’s long-term goal is both to take innovations and scale them nationally, and to create a pipeline of leaders by helping fellows move on to higher levels of child welfare leadership following their fellowship.

In two years, Foster America has placed 38 fellows in 20 agencies across the country. Over the next three years, Foster America plans to place more than 100 “new cross-sector leaders” in the field.

That is enough of a critical factor in the relatively small world of child welfare to “begin driving real change,” Lachman said.

She pointed to two organizations that inspire her and are “creating real change:”

The CHARM Collaborative in Vermont brings together representatives from the medical, drug treatment and child welfare fields to intervene with pregnant mothers addicted to opioids. They work to get them off opioids during the pregnancy, but also come up with Plan B, such as sending the baby to a grandmother or aunt if the mother is still struggling with drugs after the birth, or setting up services so the mother and child can reunite when she is able to take care of her baby. With this initiative, the intervention is happening before the “disaster.” The professionals “reach across their silos to create an approach that is far more humane for kids and families who are suffering,” said Lachman.

Another program utilizing the Medici effect, she said, is Extreme Recruitment in Missouri. The founder, Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition, came up with the idea while watching “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” on TV. On the show, hundreds of volunteers and professionals come together to build or repair a home for a family in need in seven days. In a similar way, Extreme Recruitment races to find a permanent home for the hardest-to-place kids in foster care (children aged 10-18; sibling groups; children of color; and those with emotional, developmental or behavioral issues) in a fraction of the time it would normally take.

In 2017, Extreme Recruitment matched 94 percent of kids with permanent families, and more than 80 percent with relatives.

Lachman said she is also inspired by Teach for America, Global Health Corps, among other innovative programs taking a new approach to old problems.

At least 25 percent of Foster America fellows have “lived experience,” she said, and chose different career paths, but with the fellowship found a way to come back to child welfare “on their own terms” to bring about change.

They bring “another ingredient that is critical to innovation,” Lachman said, which is passion, and that allows them to “power through” with ideas at agencies that are resistant to change, in part because “they understand what’s at stake.”

Lachman herself spent part of her childhood in foster care. The former domestic policy advisor to former Vice President Joe Biden, senior policy advisor at the Department of Education, senior education counsel to former Sen. Al Franken and attorney at the Juvenile Law Center said, “We’re all working to change systems in a field that is incredibly resistant to change.”

She left the audience of child law professionals who advocate for children, parents, agencies and kin in child welfare proceedings with two questions:

1)    How will you create opportunities to encounter new ideas and people from different sectors, from different socio-economic backgrounds, from different racial backgrounds and cultures so that you can create new solutions to old problems?

2)    How will you tap into your passion?

The National Conference on Access to Justice for Children and Families is sponsored by the ABA Center on Children and the Law.