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Looking for tech solutions to foster care's problems

Child welfare officials hope technology can help solve some of foster care's problems.
Child welfare officials hope technology can help solve some of foster care's problems.
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Can technology help solve some of the problems with LA County's foster care system? 

That's what a group of former foster kids, software developers, and officials from the county's Department of Children and Family Services are getting together to figure out this weekend. A two-day hackathon devoted to foster care kicks off Friday afternoon and runs through the weekend at the Playa Vista offices of Fullscreen Media. About 250 people are expected to attend. 

"Foster kids are so poorly served and underserved," said Jon Bradford, CEO of Colab, a tech incubator based in Los Angeles. "There's a lot of technology that exists to for instance, get a masseuse to my house that could probably be repurposed and used for keeping these kids off the streets."

The hackathon will mostly focus on how to make things easier for families involved in the system, from scheduling appointments, to communicating with social workers, to accessing help easily when they need it. Such things currently can be cumbersome. For instance, much of the county's system for setting up visitations between foster kids and their biological parents—from scheduling locations, to rides to and from visits, to who'll monitor the visits—is done by DCFS workers calling back and forth to everyone involved. 

DCFS acting director Brandon Nichols said county government and innovation haven't traditionally gone hand in hand. 

"We are dependable, we are reliable, but to move quickly into the future is something sometimes we struggle with," he said. 

One of the side effects has been a shortage of foster care parents for kids in the county. 

A reputation for bureaucracy has also generally kept start-ups and technology companies from getting involved in creating technologies specifically for government agencies, Bradford said. 

And those who are missing out on the boom in technological convenience are society's most vulnerable. 

"It's not just about having a fancy tool to make your job easier," said Sixto Cancel, CEO of Think of Us, a non-profit devoted to using technology and data to help foster kids. "It has real life implications on how we serve young people, how we serve families, and how we keep them safe."

A former foster kid himself, Cancel has helped put on hackathons first at the White House and then in San Francisco. Coming to L.A., he said, was a no-brainer. The county has the largest foster care system in the country.

"It's about setting the standard for the entire country that we can do better," he said.