Re-Imagining the Child Welfare System as We Know it Is No Joke

So a nuclear engineer, a judge, and a professor walk into a comedy club in downtown Minneapolis.   They sit down at tables filled with construction paper, Legos, Play-do and cardboard.

Sounds like a joke, right?

This past week I had the opportunity to join 99 other passionate people from around the country from a variety of disciplines and experiences at an improv comedy club (no kidding) in Minneapolis. Attendees included foster care alumni, child welfare professionals, foster parents, biological parents of kids who had once been taken into care, professors, philanthropists, and many other professionals with varying degrees of connection to child welfare. Our task?

To re-imagine child welfare as we know it. Just to clarify, the goal was not to fix the system we have, but to re-imagine a new one, where the needs of kids are at the very center.

I think we can all agree that, generally, the child welfare system as we know it is not working for our kids. That is not a criticism of the good people operating the system. That is a statement of fact about a system that simply cannot provide all that is needed to both keep kids safe and help them to thrive.

Alia is a non-profit group out of Minneapolis that decided things could not stay as they are and invited 100 people from around the country to come in to help figure out the best way to do things differently. Ten groups of ten people were assigned different facets of the system and taken through a series of activities all designed to get us thinking in new ways. Forget about thinking outside the box. It was time to throw away the box all together (or at least cut it up into pieces and turn it into a 3-D model of a new system).

The process was facilitated by the design firm, IDEO. This firm of several hundred from around the world has helped to design and re-design everything from bicycle seats, to children’s learning apps, to the educational system in Peru.

Their “Human-Centered Design” process is unconventional and for the first several hours seemed to have nothing to do with child welfare. For this very reason, leaders of the gathering could be heard repeating the phrase “trust the process”.

While I won’t go into the process here, know that it involved a mind-boggling number of post-it notes, numerous 3-D cardboard model representations of new ideas, systems, and programs, a film festival of videos all shot with about a 60-minute time deadline and a “science-fair” of sorts to discuss over 20 newly formed innovative ideas about how to do child welfare differently.

What was fascinating to me was how two themes integrated together emerged from a majority of the designs: community facilitated by technology.

It seemed that most agree that what kids and families need is supportive community and that there are many more things that could be done to achieve that through the use of technology.   We often think of community relationships and technology being at odds with one another or that at best, technology creates a counterfeit version of community (i.e. social media sites where we think we are getting to know people, but we are really just getting to know the most presentable parts of them).

However, in general, the ideas created this week recognized the value of authentic human contact and imagined ways to facilitate community (not substitute for it) using tech solutions.

There are more steps to come. The rough ideas created over the course of 72 hours will be refined and re-considered and many of them will eventually be implemented. You can learn more about what this process looked like by checking out this great news segment done by Channel 11 in Minneapolis.

SO . . . like I said before, a nuclear engineer, a judge, and a professor walk into a comedy club in downtown Minneapolis. They sit down at tables filled with construction paper, Legos, Play-do and cardboard.

What’s the punchline?

We don’t know yet, but we can’t wait to find out.

This post originally appeared in our Foster Roster e-newsletter which is delivered each Friday. We keep it short and sweet and fill it with practical articles, videos, blog posts and other tools for leaders like you working to provide more than enough for kids and families in foster care.  To sign up, go to