New York Child Welfare Leader Takes Up Obama Legacy, Foster Care Hackathons

 In May, a couple hundred technologists, child welfare experts and foster youth gathered on the grounds of the White House for the first foster care hackathon to reach such national prominence.

During the last hour of the two-day event, Rafael López, who leads President Obama’s Administration for Children, Youth and Families, offered a chance for participants to share their commitments in regards to fomenting increased use of technology in child welfare.

One of the hands that went up was that of Gladys Carrión, who leads New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (SCS). Carrión promised to organize a hackathon of her own.

This weekend that promise will come true when ACS hosts a New York City hackathon in partnership with eBay, Think of Us, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation, and the Redlich Horwitz Foundation.

New York’s event will be followed by a similar foster care and technology summit in Silicon Valley in February, and another in Los Angeles in the spring.

CREDIT: NYC ACS Gladys Carrión is the Commissioner of New York City's Administration for Children's Services.
CREDIT: NYC ACS
Gladys Carrión is the Commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services.

In a recent interview, Carrión described her hopes for the New York hackathon, and her thoughts on how technology can serve the foster children and youth she is committed to protect and help thrive.

DH: You, of course, attended the White House hackathon, where you raised your hand to commit to doing this New York version. Why did you feel it was so important that you do this yourself?

GC: I was energized by the White House hackathon. I had no idea what a hackathon was. In all candor, I am not as tech savvy as I thought I was.

I really felt that it was time for New York City to partner with the technology community to see if they could help us find out solutions to some of the tech-related problems that we have.

DH: If you could get one thing out of this hackathon, what would that be?

GC: I want to get our young people energized, interested in technology, and seeing if we can create a partnership with the tech community. I’d love for them to work more closely with us and with our young people.

I really want the tech community to get to know the child welfare community.

DH: You have identified three focus areas for the hackathon: youth issues, foster parent recruitment and support and technological solutions to some of the issues social workers face. What was the process of determining what you were going to focus on?

GC: We did focus groups with young people, did focus groups with foster parents, we did focus groups with child welfare workers here at the agency, and then we also talked to providers.

It was a pretty inclusive process of talking to all the stakeholders about what a hackathon was and what the possibilities were.

I think the challenge was reducing the number of ideas that would become challenges to a manageable number.

DH: When it comes to your “youth challenge,” you identified peer-to-peer communities for foster youth, leveraging technology for transition plans, and using technology to help assemble documentation that youth will need after they leave the system. What do you hope to accomplish in these areas specifically?

GC: The youth voice in transition plans is really important. From my perspective, when we have the voice of young people and they own it, you get better results.

The real challenge is that many of the transition plans fall apart. And if a young person is not invested in it and wasn’t part of developing that plan you’re not going to have the success that you want.

DH: When it comes to your foster parent challenges, you identified supporting and recruiting foster parents as well as helping them find resources for their foster children as key issues. So on that supporting count, what do you think about using ride sharing apps like Uber to get biological parents and foster children to important family visits?

GC: We actually talked about that in one of the focus groups. I think that that’s a really interesting idea, and I think that it’s something that we said we would and should pursue. Yeah, I think that’s intriguing.

DH: When it comes to foster parent recruitment, that is clearly an issue all across the country. How do you think technology could help you be smarter in your recruitment?

GC: I think that, one, it will help us get the message out, and also help us target more directly the type of foster parents that we need. I think the sure way is that we’re thinking that having a technology solution to help us better target in communities the foster parents that we would need. If the children come up from a particular community, we want them to stay in their community by recruiting foster parents from that particular community, and being able to then do that through technology is one of the goals that we have.

DH: So, recruitment efficiency has a lot to do with geography?

GC: Yeah, because, we have some disconnect now. We’re doing a lot of data mining, looking at where our foster parents are, where our agencies are and where our children come from, and what we’re finding out is how we make life difficult for foster parents.

We’ve discovered that we have foster parents that live in the Bronx, for instance, who are foster parents for children from Brooklyn. So the child’s school is in Brooklyn, the doctor is in Brooklyn, the child’s family is in Brooklyn, and they’re going back to Brooklyn to get all these services and support for the children, and the question is: How did that happen? And why does that happen?

So, that is something we’re looking at and we’re saying can technology help with that.

DH: In terms of using technology to help your social workers, what is the big hope there?

GC: Social workers are used to the telephone; right? And, they use the telephone and they can never get young people on the phone. So is there a way we can do it through social media? Can we develop an app that would facilitate the communication between the social worker and that young person that’s not relying on the telephone?

For instance, can we post stuff to Facebook? We are also thinking about different ways that we could facilitate having young people feel more comfortable engaging with the social worker; you know, is it a text, is it Skype?

It’s really about keeping young people at the center of this work, and what works best for them given the time that we live in and the advancement in social media technology that they feel comfortable with, that’s intuitive to them, and then how do we leverage technology to help facilitate that.

How do we make the social workers’ jobs easier to really provide the support that young people need. And, so, that’s been really at the center of all of our conversations around this hackathon. And, you know, we’re very, very efficient, but this is just the beginning of exploring what are the ideas out there and then bringing a whole new cohort of people into our lives, and developing a closer relationship with the tech community, and see how we can leverage not only their work but who they are.

Kids are really interested in technology and jobs and computers. Is there a way to forge a relationship between that community and our young people and bring them exposure to that world? So, that’s why we’re excited about the hackathon.

We also already have some partners that are interested in funding technology solutions. We have some foundations that are willing to spend some dollars in the most promising ideas.

DH: In the span of less than a year you will have had the White House hackathon, New York, Silicon Valley, and L.A. What do you think about this growing interest in the intersection of foster care and technology?

GC: That’s awesome. Wouldn’t it be great to bring them all together and see what we learned?

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Daniel Heimpel
About Daniel Heimpel 193 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.