A ‘Mind Blowing’ Experience at the White House Foster Care Hackathon

Last week, during a reception at a sleek house off of Washington D.C.’s Embassy Row, I found myself in the kitchen talking with Winnie Wechsler.

Wechsler, who runs the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, which funds a slew of child welfare related non-profits including the one I run, was amped up. For months she has been working with other charitable foundations, technologists, folks from the Obama Administration’s child welfare agency and a young man named Sixto Cancel to get the ensuing two-day White House Foster Care Hackathon off the ground.

“It’s going to blow your mind,” she told me.

Afflicted with a journalist’s skepticism, and having seen waves of foster care initiatives flame and fizzle over the years, I reserved my judgement.

I will not yet disclose whether my mind was indeed “blown,” but I think it is important to share ­– for those who were not there – what I took away as some of the most significant moments.

Big Data

About fifty people crammed into a panel session on “Big Data.” As we have reported in this publication on numerous occasions, the field of child welfare is grappling with the huge moral question of whether or not to use data analytics to help predict the likelihood that certain children will becomes victims of abuse.

About 45 minutes into the panel, moderator DJ Patil, who is the chief data scientist for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, asked Gladys Carrión, the commissioner of New York City’s vast child welfare administration, what she thought of using predictive analytics in her agency.

“It scares the hell out of me,” Carrión said, inciting half nervous chuckles in the room.

“What specifically scares you?” Patil asked.

“I think about how we are impacting and infringing on people’s civil liberties,” Carrión said. She added that she runs a system “that exclusively serves black and brown children and families… I am concerned about widening the net under the guise that we are going to help them. How can we use these tools to keep children and families in communities together?”

“I am concerned about stigmatizing families,” she went on. “I don’t think this is the Holy Grail, but I do think it is an effective tool. So how do I mitigate that?”

Towards the end of the session, Patil said that President Obama is “extremely focused” on the expansion of predictive analytics into human services.

“How do we have a richer dialogue about these things?” Patil asked. “What is that dialogue about the pros and cons? If you are building [these tools], how to create fairness by design?”

While these questions remained unanswered, the moment was important for two reasons.

First was the level at which the dialogue was happening. You had a relatively high level Obama official talking to the chief of one of the nation’s largest child welfare systems alongside a panel of leading researchers in the space, all witnessed by a crowd including Rafael López, the head of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), which oversees the nation’s tapestry of public child welfare agencies.

The second was the candor of Carrión’s remarks, and the way she matched fear and ambivalence with an ability to remain open-minded. I will get back to this, but in this particular arena, there is a willingness at the highest levels to experiment with technologies that are both wildly promising and scary as hell.

Big Data Panel during day 2 of the Foster Care Hackathon.

Big Data Panel during day 2 of the Foster Care Hackathon.

A New Kind of Foster Care Leader

I mentioned him higher up, we profiled him last week, and as the senior editor of this publication is quick to point out: The Imprint has dedicated a ribbon of digital ink to the guy already. But that is not likely to change. Sixto Cancel, the founder of Think Of Us, and one of the chief organizers of the May 27 and 28 hackathon, is having a moment.

Throughout the two-day event Cancel was ceaselessly managing his team of young and dedicated employees, chatting into the ear of Molly Dillon, his collaborator on the White House Domestic Policy Council, and working the room in a way that belied a potential for homegrown leadership that this field has yet to see.

For years now, foster youth have been organizing to advocate for their rights through state-sponsored “youth advocacy boards” and non-profits like California Youth Connection, which can be giantly effective in changing laws for kids in the system.

It was through one of these types of organizations that I first met Cancel in Bridgeport, Conn., back in 2010. He was wearing a suit while his peers were in sweats. He spent his time talking to the adults, me included. I was impressed, and a year later invited him to join a panel on foster care and education at Harvard Law School. He killed.

Over the years, foster youth led advocacy efforts have helped launch great leaders. The most prominent among them is Jennifer Rodriguez who now leads the Youth Law Center out of San Francisco and recently served on the White House Commission to End Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.

Not to diminish Rodriguez’s due shine whatsoever, but Cancel is a different kind of former foster youth leader. He is building his vision of a new child welfare system outside of the support systems that have hitherto carried the voice of so many foster youth. This is a critical point of embarkation. The foster youth led advocacy world has largely been built on a cast of founders, executive directors and administrators who ­never experienced foster care. Cancel is doing it – with help – on his own.

In the packed auditorium of the Eisenhower Building where the most ceremonial moments of the hackathon took place, the 24-year-old took the stage.

In unambiguous language, he called out the elephant in the foster youth advocacy room. He said that young people should not focus on the agenda of the agencies that give them a platform, but rather on taking advantage of those platforms to deliver messages that best serve other foster youth.

“Be unapologetic,” Cancel said. “Your primary mission is to serve our own brothers and sisters who have been in foster care.”

He ended his remarks by evoking an old adage: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

The young man is leading.

CREDIT: Think of Us, Sixto Cancel, Molly Dillon and hackathon participants mid-hack.

CREDIT: Think of Us, Sixto Cancel, Molly Dillon and hackathon participants mid-hack.


Towards the end of the hackathon, things started to get a little crazy when Commissioner López of ACYF asked people to stand and share “commitments.”

Folks from the Silicon Valley Children’s Fund promised to produce a foster care hackathon in October with some of the biggest leaders in the valley ­– to which a former foster youth turned CEO named Marquis Cabrerra said he would chip in $10,000 of his own money.

Carrión of New York’s Administration for Children’s Services promised to hold a hackathon there. ACYF’s López said he would partner.

Jon Bradford, the founder of a start-up incubation firm called CoLab, promised to build out the application his team had made the night before and host it into eternity.

Kevin “Scooter” Ward of the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency said that he would work with Cancel to launch his Unify platform in D.C. Unify helps transition-age youth set goals and interface with important adults in their lives.

Jenny Wood, who used to work for Congressmember Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and now works at ACYF, said the agency would strengthen language ensuring foster youth had access to Medicaid after aging out, and that it would clear up guidance so that information sharing is easier among the systems that foster youth touch.

And so it went, a bonanza of promises to continue the work.

Back to that Question of Blown Minds

CREDIT: Think of Us, Commissioner Lopez during the Hackathon

CREDIT: Think of Us, Commissioner Lopez during the Hackathon

It was Friday, just before the long Memorial Day weekend, yet Commissioner López was hustling to another meeting just after the hackathon ended. I tagged along.

I asked him how he thought it all went.

“Totally energized,” he replied. “I think that the vibe in the room both yesterday and all night was extraordinary.”

Then, as we moved briskly through the black-and-white-tiled corridors of the massive Eisenhower Building, I came back to a question that I think is at the heart of child welfare’s future. I asked him to react to Commissioner Carrión’s “scared as hell,” comment.

“I think that to ignore a world that now includes conversations around data analytics and predictive analytics and big data is to ignore progress in the world, but we need to be really careful and thoughtful about that. So that is ultimately what should drive this work because we are dealing with human beings. You know, no tool, no technological tool, no system, can replace the human head, heart and mind.”

“And I think what we often do in this space is bifurcate it from ‘do you want big data and predictive analytics or not?’ And I think that that is a false choice. We have to be much more thoughtful in this space about being creative and innovative and having hard conversations about things like privacy and data sharing et cetera. But it is all possible if we are willing to engage in the conversation.”

And with that, we passed through a door, and I found myself under the hot sun looking straight over to the White House. Commissioner López said goodbye and walked off.

I stood there for a second, and whom should I see behind me?

Winnie Wechsler.

Guess what I told her.

Yes, Ms. Wechsler, my mind was blown.

(Video courtesy of Think of Us)

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