Is This App the Key to Reunifying Los Angeles Families?

The immensity of Los Angeles County’s foster care visitation challenge is hard to fathom.

When a child is removed from the custody of his or her family due to abuse and neglect, a key part of the reunification process is ensuring that child can visit with his or her parent. But in L.A., which is larger and more populous than most states, scheduling those visits takes the county’s child welfare system 2 million hours every year.

The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is hoping that an app, like one developed during a first-of-its kind hackathon this spring, can help ensure that foster children have important visits with their biological parents while in care.

“When kids are separated from their parents it’s traumatic to be taken away, and we want to maintain their bond,” said Genie Chough, the director of government affairs and legislation at DCFS. “Visits are the best way to maintain bonds and strengthen them.”

Chough would know. Before taking her current position at the department, Chough worked in the office of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, where she wrote the September 2016 motion that ordered DCFS to improve its visitation process.

But that is an enormous task. The department serves 34,000 children, nearly 18,000 of whom are living in an out-of-home placement. This accounts for almost 40 percent of California’s entire foster care population.

DCFS estimates that it oversees four million hours of visitation a year – and that doesn’t account for the time that it takes to schedule the visits.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks during the Foster Care Hackathon in April. Photo: Think of Us 

It is that second part of the problem – the scheduling – where the department thinks technology can have a serious impact. The idea of creating a scheduling app that foster parents, biological parents and social workers could all use was first floated at the #HackFosterCareLA hackathon in April.

The hackathon brought together current and former foster youth, tech companies, county and city government officials, and non-profit service agencies with the hopes of finding technological solutions to five key issues negatively impacting the life course of L.A. foster youth.

Christopher Brereton, a senior product manager at Santa Monica tech firm Inspire, was part of a “hack team” that dove into the visitation challenge. It wasn’t Brereton’s first exposure to the foster care system, having mentored college-aged foster youth before.

“The visitation challenge had a number of levels in its complexity,” Brereton said. “It is interesting because L.A. is so big, L.A. is a group of different cities and they’re really hard to get to … Many times kids aren’t always placed in the same foster care home, and for one of those kids to get to the other it can take hours.”

The solution Brereton and his team came up with over the course of a caffeine-addled night during the April event, was an app they called Re:Unite, which automates the process of scheduling visits.

According to Brereton, stakeholders and former foster youth were continuously asked for their perspective on the app’s implementation and accessibility.

Brandon Nichols, DCFS’ acting director, hopes that an app like Re:Unite can relieve the workload of social workers and the human service aids (HSAs) who do the lion’s share of the scheduling and driving.

“By automating some of the work, HSAs and social workers will have more time to make meaningful conversations [with youth],” Nichols said.

DCFS has convened a group of foster care providers to design a wish list and a proof of concept. The department has identified two pilot sites to test the app when it becomes available.

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