The next generation of foster care
It’s almost a rite of passage. When students return home from college, they often find that things have changed — their bedrooms have been turned into an office, or dad has picked up a new hobby.
Melissa Hutton came home for summer break and found completely new faces around the dinner table.
Hutton’s mother became a foster parent after her daughter left for college. Now Hutton fosters two children of her own and has adopted two others.
“Growing up, my mom had an open-door policy. Anyone who needed a place to stay was welcome under her roof,” she says.
Hutton’s experience with fostering is more refined than her mother’s, largely because of ECAP (Every Child a Priority), a KU-backed online tool that helps children find the most compatible foster homes.
Here’s how it works: Information about foster children is entered into the program, and foster families complete questionnaires about their expectations and abilities. ECAP uses an algorithm to compare and match a child’s profile with the profile of an available family – much the way a dating website would.
For foster children, the implications of finding a stable home the first time are potentially life changing.
“These kids are often from trauma backgrounds,” says Hutton, who has also worked as a resource family worker for TFI Family Services in Topeka. As she explains it, a child must learn attachment in order to heal – a feat made impossible when moving from home to home.
ECAP works by predicting what won’t work, Hutton continues. “The ECAP questionnaire forces prospective foster parents to ask themselves hard questions. ‘What can I handle?’ ‘Do I have resources for this child?’ If a child destroys property and you’re renting your home — that won’t work.”
There is no such thing as a perfect family, and Hutton admits to as much. But where fostering is concerned it is possible to provide a compatible, fitting home for a child.
The need for change
ECAP’s ability to centralize information is important in a complex foster care system.
At any given point, a child’s case is handled by the court, intake managers, case workers, and child advocates. Because of the high turnover in social services and changing state contracts, each foster child case may have been handled by multiple case workers and agencies, each potentially having less background on that child.
ECAP is about knowing where to find a complete story on a child and getting that information in the hands of everyone involved so a good placement can be made, says Paul Epp, director of Foster Care Technologies, the company that markets, supports, and continues to develop ECAP.
In fact, sharing information was important to the development of ECAP. Without the ecosystem of collaboration that KU offers — child welfare researchers, data scientists, the BTBC — ECAP would not be what it is.
“We want to develop ECAP even further and get more people involved,” Epp says. “That’s the thing about an ecosystem, it’s always growing and changing.”