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Story Publication logo August 4, 2022

Tracked and Traced: The Case for Digitizing the Foster and Adoptive Systems in the U.S.

Tracked and Trace

A 10-episode podcast looks into the ever-growing impact of surveillance technology on our lives.

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Multiple Authors
Case file warehouse. Image by Patrick Vaughan / WBET. United States, 2022.

In this episode

  • The case for foster and adoptive systems to transition from a paper-based warehouse system to that of digital case files
  • An overview of lived experiences within the foster care and adoptive systems by Karlos Dillard, activist, speaker and author of “Ward of the State
  • Sixto Cancel, CEO of Think of US, on new research and data-driven processes to reform the foster care system
  • Dr. Sarah Lageson, author of “Digital Punishment,” and a sociologist in the school of criminal justice at Rutgers University, on what foster system digitization can learn from the criminal justice system’s transition over 30 years ago

Karlos Dillard advocates for foster youth by educating social workers and foster parents in Seattle, Washington. Dillard was 10 years old when he was adopted. The adoption ultimately failed, and at 15 years old, Dillard was forced out of his supposed “forever home” and onto the streets, where he had to perform sex work, and was couch-surfing to survive.

With the help of Dillard’s life coach, mentor and proclaimed father, Perry Morgan, Dillard went on to work three jobs—putting himself through high school and college, all while homeless.

So, how did Dillard end up in the foster care system to begin with?

“My mother was at one of the largest drug dealers in Michigan in the Detroit area in the ’90s […] And you know, we weren’t necessarily abused, but there was a lot of neglect.”

After Dillard’s school teacher reported neglect and police became involved, he and siblings were removed from their parental home.

Karlos Dillard’s experience to hunt down proof of his status as a former foster youth to access financial aid for college highlighted the need for a centralized database and digitized system. Image by Patrick Vaughan/WDET. United States, 2022.

Dillard was first split from his brothers and went to a home with his sister. He was quickly removed from that home environment, separated from his entire family.

Dillard says he ended up living in 37 different homes. In some cases, he was abused.

“I just kept getting bounced from home to home to home, and as you read in the book, sometimes it was […] because I had emotional and trauma issues that weren’t being addressed. And then sometimes I was just being sexually, mentally and physically abused.”

When someone is adopted, the adoptive parents’ names take the place of the biological parents on their birth certificate.

This small action changes tax information for applications like FAFSA, which do not show foster and adoptive care history.

Without proof of being a ward of the state, Dillard did not have access to financial assistance, housing assistance or other resources that he otherwise would have had if he had not been adopted.

When he enrolled in college, Dillard hit a snag with FAFSA—he needed to prove his status as a former foster youth. It took him two and a half years to get his case file. He was living in Florida at the time but had to physically go to Michigan because his case file wasn’t sent digitally.

Dillard had to sift through a warehouse of documentation to find his case file.

“The state doesn’t keep really good records, they just like throw boxes in a warehouse and they’re like, ‘Yeah it’s in there somewhere.’”

That experience highlighted the need for a centralized database and digitized system, says Dillard.

“There should be an app that is state run that has all of your medical information […] That way, in 10 to 15 years, people like myself can go and access that app and have all that information and don’t have to go shuffle through a whole warehouse full of boxes to find papers that half of it’s redacted.”

Reforming the system

Sixto Cancel is another former foster care and adoptive youth turned activist, and is the CEO of Think of Us, a nonprofit focused on child welfare systems transformation.

Cancel says stories like Dillard’s are not an anomaly, and issues with the foster system are widespread. In a recent report by Think of Us, physical, sexual and emotional abuse were reported by young people in the foster and adoption systems.

“Young people reported feeling isolated,” says Cancel, “feeling like they’re behind their peers and lack being connected to school and work.”

Cancel says one of the things that will transform the system is using technology to find family members, speed up administrative processes and connect people with resources in their community.

“What’s so interesting is that child welfare is using software that is completely outdated […] young people should be able to log into a portal and understand what are their rights or other services that they can be accessing.”

Transitioning from paper to digital systems

Over 30 years ago, the criminal justice system reached a critical mass where the system grew too large to be managed by paper record-keeping, giving way to digital database systems.

“This led to a market for the private sector to sell software packages […] kind of like HR software, but for the criminal justice system,” says Sarah Lageson, a sociologist at Rutgers University.

The fine print of these public-private contracts allowed the software companies to repurpose the information in the database for other purposes.

“These companies, especially in early days, were really making copies of the data,” says Lageson.

“So if I’m a data broker, and I want data that’s really cheap and easy to get, I can use public records. And there’s identifiers in there that mean that this new data can be merged with other sorts of data like people’s addresses or birth dates or full names.”

If the foster and adoptive systems are digitized, they would include years’ worth of personal data, including educational, medical and behavioral records. Such information could be an informational goldmine for companies like Google or Meta.

As people like Karlos Dillard and Sixto Cancel work to streamline and digitize record-keeping in the foster and adoptive systems, there is a risk in making personal information that much more accessible.

“It’s paramount to put protections in place and to build legislation around protecting this kind of information,” Lageson says.

“Overhauling record-keeping in the foster system might seem like a purely technical challenge, but it’s not so simple.”

Lageson identifies four ways to protect personal data with a new centralized database.

  • The data should be accessible, remedied if inaccurate and deleted at a given date.
  • Limiting software provider’s access and rights to use the data.
  • Anonymize and aggregate data for watchdog purposes.
  • Standardize method for collecting and logging data between states and localities.

“There’s a whole human element to the data-driven society that we’re in,” says Lageson.

“We are the architects behind it […] And, you know, perhaps technology has been moving a lot faster than these conversations in the past, but I’m hopeful that now we’re at a different moment and we can be more reflective.”

Tracked and Traced is supported by the Pulitzer Center, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and MSUFCU.


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