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ECHO Family Care Partners

CarePortal: The Uber of Foster Care



 

Every year in the U.S., seven million children are referred to child protective services. On any given day close to 400,000 children are in the foster system. Roughly 80% of children in foster care have mental-health issues vs. 18% to 22% for other children. This is a problem worth solving.


The origin story: Healthcare executive Adrien Lewis and his wife began fostering children in 2011 and spent two years trying to get churches in the Kansas City area to recruit foster parents—no easy task. Then, “out of nowhere,” Mr. Lewis says, “I get a vision for CarePortal, to leverage technology to connect. In crisis, those touched by the child-welfare system could connect with churches and people who care in proximity that would want to help if they knew.


What would happen if you could expose people to the reality that a bed or crib or car seat, or paying a bill, things that were small, like 6-inch barriers, would actually make a difference to keep kids out of foster care and reunify biological families?” Heck of a vision.


So “with shoestring and duct tape, we pulled together different software platforms and kind of jimmied them together. A pilot of CarePortal hit the market in Austin, Texas, in late 2014. People went nuts over it. The very first request was for a family with a bedbug problem who was trying to adopt a cousin who had been in foster care. Supplies and volunteers solved their bedding problem.”


Here are some stats: 50% of children in the foster system are concentrated in 5% of counties in 31 states. That’s 160 counties and 96 markets. CarePortal is now in 64 markets and growing and says it has helped more than 250,000 children avoid foster care.


CarePortal CEO Joe Knittig told me that “Uber is to ride-sharing what CarePortal is to care sharing—community-based care sharing. Every day, we have 350 children that are actually being served by their neighbors through CarePortal.” The plan is to scale it to thousands.

Mr. Knittig goes on, “The No. 1 driver of children entering the foster system is not abuse, it’s poverty-related neglect.” I looked up the numbers. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, in 2021 only 16% entered foster care because of physical or sexual abuse of the child. Sixty-three percent entered because of neglect.


Mr. Knittig explains, “CarePortal at its essence is a request-response loop.” On one side are social-service professionals, social workers and others who enter “real-time vetted needs of kids and families in crisis” into the CarePortal app. On the other side are local churches and community responders who see the need and jump into action. “Bedding is the No. 1 need entered into CarePortal. But there could be relational things like ‘I need a mentor.’ ”


It works pre-emptively too. Social workers are “literally entering: What are the things that are needed for me to not remove this child? And some of them are further upstream like: OK, I’m not ready to remove the child, but to strengthen this family so they don’t get to that point.”

“Social workers who are using it are some of the most unsung heroes in our country, but they’re usually underpaid, overworked. It is brutally difficult, traumatic work for them, and so their turnover rates are really high. They’re encountering these needs and don’t have access to community-based resources at scale.”

On the responding side, Mr. Knittig says, “we’re recruiting a broad coalition of the willing—local churches and other community leaders. They could be individuals or businesses. They could be other faith-based organizations—a synagogue. Anyone with a heart for the community and to serve. They’re our community responders.”


He showed me a screenshot from the app that showed items needed and the distance to various community responders, who, like Uber drivers, can click on items they can provide. The results might be a bed from one organization and mattress covers from another. Individuals then show up to help. “CarePortal creates and accelerates human connection. Different community responders are now meeting each other and serving these real-time needs. The point is, the car seat, the crib, the bill that needs to be paid, is a gateway to a relationship. It’s the relationship and the ongoing wraparound that is the magic.”


Does it work? “We did a study in a three-county area at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic in Florida. With CarePortal, there was a 60% reduction in the number of kids entering foster care and, during the time of the study, which before had rapid caseworker turnover, they had zero resignations during the time of the study.”

This amazed me: “Our organization stays anonymous to those kids. Really, it’s a big deal to us,” he says. “So there’s not one of those 250,000 kids or their parents who’s ever heard of us. They see their care coming from their moms, their dads, their grandparents, a local church, volunteers, a social worker, so it’s truly a bottom-up thing. We’re an underground connecting platform. And it’s important to us that these kids have local heroes. We’re building capacity for local churches in the lowest-income ZIP Codes to be the solutions for their own families.”


I ask about Mr. Knittig’s motivation. “So at the core of it, I started here because I was one of these kids and I have a unique perspective that these kids are not the objects of our pity. They are full of potential and need to be invested in by their neighbors. These are our future leaders.”

The platform’s founder, Mr. Lewis, hopes that long-term, versions of CarePortal can help “veterans and elderly and people with disabilities, or people who just got out of prison. Those that are isolated. The same technology can work for all of the most vulnerable.”


Half of the nonprofit’s funding comes from agencies paying platform fees and the rest from donors in the Stand Together network and others. States spend more than $30 billion every year on child-welfare agencies and programs. Hopefully, because of CarePortal, that spending goes down, but more important, because of technology that connects social workers with volunteers and community responders, children can avoid foster care and stay with their families.

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