We stand at a pivotal moment, facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally reshape the child welfare system.
The collective experience of the pandemic has forced the child welfare system to rapidly adapt to new challenges. Expanded funding opportunities have been put to innovative uses. A growing consensus of leaders recognize that child welfare too often fails to meet the needs of those it serves. We've shifted from a narrow concept of child safety to a broader emphasis on family wellbeing. Reform efforts increasingly focus on helping families stay together, rather than breaking them apart.
However, while there is broad agreement on our greatest challenges, we struggle to find solutions that address root causes and work at scale.
I founded Think of Us to give people impacted by child welfare an opportunity to change that system. Throughout history, the most successful movements for systemic change - ending child labor and Jim Crow, gaining women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights - have one crucial thing in common: they were envisioned, built, and executed by the people impacted by the problem. This idea is now becoming widely accepted: that lived experience must be central to creating effective systemic reform.
At Think of Us, centering lived experience means we’re committed to a process, not a predetermined solution. Our novel structure and approach are the results of this commitment, consistently applied. As new opportunities arise, we adapt.
To meet this moment, we must respond differently. We have been working this year to expand from an owner-operator model to one where ownership of the vision is shared among senior leaders, welcoming experienced leaders from diverse sectors to drive our mission forward. Our shared commitment to deeply engaging lived experts is allowing us to codify a perspective, process, and set of tools that together create pathways to effect large-scale systemic change.
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the thousands of lived experts and many individuals, organizations, and funders who partner with us in this work.
Vice President, Center for Systems Innovation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation
We launched the Center for Lived Experience in May 2022 with more than 300 partners and stakeholders from government, philanthropy, and social service organizations in attendance. Proximate policy efforts, 4 foundational research projects, technical assistance to 5 partner research projects, and collaboration on 6 strategic initiatives are already underway.
Our Virtual Support Services empowered 2,279 youth and families to access critical resources. Average response time was 8 business hours, building trust and ensuring that people get the help they need when they need it.
Think of Us established 6 Vice President Roles in its new leadership structure. Our expanded Senior Leadership team includes VPs of Engineering, Direct Impact, External Engagement, People, Research & Design, and Strategic Partnerships & Implementation.
Our Center for Lived Experience proximate policy team is engaged with more than 60 congressional offices, representing 37 states.
This year, our research and work has informed:
A brief to the U.S. Supreme Court / A U.S. Senate investigation / A Department of Justice investigation / A seminal book on racial inequity in foster care / Research published by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch / Research workgroup with the Children’s Bureau / Articles published in The NY Times, NBC News, The Economist, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, The Stanford Social Innovation Review, the LA Sentinel, The Imprint, USA Today, and many others
States engaged with the Center for Lived Experience through foundational research projects, technical assistance research projects, and collaboration on strategic initiatives already underway.
States that we have engaged in the ripple effects of Away From Home, our report on the experiences and perspectives of young people who have lived in institutional placements in foster care.
We’ve had 51,244 interactions with individuals through our Lived Experience Engine in 2022.
In 2022, Think of Us has deepened our commitment to building proximity between those who make decisions for the child welfare system and those most affected by it. Working in partnership with players across the child welfare ecosystem – from frontline workers and county administrators to leading funders and federal policymakers – we’ve engaged systems-changing initiatives that integrate lived experience at every step. Below, we hope to show how three of our recent initiatives have driven systemic impact across the country.
The Center for Lived Experience is a state and federal policy and research initiative launched in 2022 to create proximity at scale between decision-makers and people with lived experience in child welfare. It addresses ecosystem knowledge gaps by building feedback loops to elevate lived experience data and establish proof points for lived experts to formally engage in bipartisan policy making and collaboration.
We’re pioneering new approaches in participatory and trauma-responsive research design and implementation that ensure research participants are equitably engaged and empowered to make choices about how their data will be used. We’re building relationships with key leaders and congressional committee members, working with the White House and agencies to steer policy, partnering with others to educate members of Congress, and identifying champions across the federal ecosystem. The Center is laying the groundwork for permanent structures through which people with lived experience can co-create a child welfare system that truly meets the needs of youth and families.
Away from Home examined the experiences and perspectives of young people who recently lived in institutional placements in foster care, revealing shocking patterns of abuse, isolation, neglect, overmedication, and traumatization in environments that were unloving, punitive, and prison-like. Following publication, twenty-two states committed to ending the need for group home placements.
We are now partnering with six of these jurisdictions to make this commitment a reality by prioritizing kin and culturally-responsive placements instead of institutions. This has shifted the national conversation around the institutionalization of youth and demonstrates the power of lived experience data to shift mental models and drive systemic change.
Our Lived Experience Engine connects 38,000+ individuals directly impacted by child welfare, including former foster youth, biological parents, and kin caregivers. These individuals inform everything we do, from providing data and insights through research, to co-designing tools such as Virtual Support Services, to using their voices to shift the conversation with federal and state leaders.
The Platform allows us to leverage robust, growing, dynamic datasets to inform policy and practice across the child welfare ecosystem. We are now inviting lived experts and partners to inform how we maximize the value of this resource while continuing to innovate data-protection and privacy standards.
This moment is an inflection point for the child welfare system to embrace that through centering lived experience, true systems change is both actionable and achievable.
By building diverse, interconnected pathways to systems change, engaging lived experts to clarify problems and design holistic solutions, conducting new research to fill historic knowledge gaps, building feedback loops to put that data in the hands of decision-makers, innovating scalable solutions to practical problems, and coordinating collaboration across the national ecosystem, we can drive unprecedented transformation, together.
Our growth over the past five years has been mirrored by a steady growth in earned and contributed revenue. This year, we prepared to further scale our impact by expanding our executive team, adding leaders with proven success managing organizations through periods of growth. Additionally, we're investing in robust technological infrastructure to accommodate increased demand for our services.
Vice President, Operations
Centering lived experience is more than a moral imperative, it is the critical pathway to understanding and addressing the root of systemic problems in child welfare. Our approach invites policymakers and practitioners to join with lived experts in an entrepreneurial enterprise not possible from within traditional bureaucracies - to design, test, and iterate novel, scalable solutions, and to identify and empower those best positioned to implement those solutions.
As we discover together what works, we aim to codify scalable strategies into policy, shift mental models, and redirect resource flows so that solutions are far-reaching and sustainable for generations to come.
Our report accelerates momentum for the national movement to end the need for group home placements for foster youth
We’re shifting mental models about what’s working and what’s possible in child welfare.
Research can be a site of harm and trauma for both participants and researchers. How can we be trauma-responsive in our research practices?