The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to bring an infusion of fresh talent and ideas into the ranks of its local child welfare professionals.
The board unanimously approved a $1.2 million contract to fund five 18-month child welfare fellowships through Foster America, a fast-growing nonprofit led by a former foster youth with an impressive career in Washington, D.C.
Using a model similar to Teach for America, Foster America recruits and trains professionals from a variety of backgrounds to step into full-time fellowships at government child welfare agencies and nonprofits serving foster children and families at risk of child welfare involvement. The idea is to mine outside industries for strategies that could improve the child welfare system, like marketing best practices and data analytics.
Sherry Lachman, founder and executive director of Foster America, said that any enterprise — from a Silicon Valley tech firm to a local government agency — needs a diverse range of skillsets at the table to succeed.
“Child welfare is no different, but it’s treated differently. And much to the detriment of the field and the kids and families served by it,” Lachman told The Chronicle. “If you look at the staff and leadership teams in most child welfare agencies across the country, they’re staffed almost uniformly by people who have come up through the same casework ranks.”
“Its unfair to put the entire burden or expectation of fixing the system on their shoulders alone,” she said.
Before founding Foster America in 2016, Lachman had already gained invaluable experience understanding child welfare from the federal level — having staffed both former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Vice President Joe Biden (D). She decided to leave the federal government for the more uncertain world of social entrepreneurship when she realized that the experiences and outcomes for foster youth hadn’t changed much since she was in care more than 30 years ago. She interviewed over 100 experts to determine what was holding the industry back from innovation and improvement, and the one theme that stood out was concern of skills gaps in the field.
Since launching two short years ago, Foster America has scaled rapidly, partnering with child welfare agencies in nine jurisdictions; L.A. will be the tenth.
Foster America recruits mid-career professionals with skills in four particular areas they believe are critical for the child welfare sector, but are currently lacking: data and technology, marketing and human-centered design, finance, and strategy and operations. Only 4 percent of those who apply are selected for the program, out of more than 500 who have applied in the program’s first two years. The most recent cohort of fellows included a public policy professional, a real estate attorney, someone with a background in Fortune 500 companies and a foster parent.
In L.A., the five fellows will be placed at the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and the Department of Mental Health (DMH), which, along with philanthropic support, is funding the work. One goal will be to improve interdepartmental collaboration between DCFS and DMH, according to DMH Director Jonathan Sherin.
The fellows will work with county leaders to develop projects aimed at preventing abuse, neglect and placement in foster care, and improving the experience and outcomes of children and youth in foster care.
Brandon Nichols, deputy director of DCFS, said that in addition to improving the system with their projects, he believes the fellows will become “apostles for [the] system.”
“They will go out and tell people how important these kids are, how important the work is,” he said.