Kelvin Kendall, 17, was kicked out of his house on a recent Friday.
By the next morning, he was leading a discussion at eBay headquarters on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea on how to ameliorate similar situations for other youth.
Kendall is one of nearly 30,000 people in the New York City foster care system. And on that Saturday, Dec. 3, he was participating in the first New York City foster care hackathon, working with a team of activists and techies to create an app that brings accessible after-hours support to people in the foster care system. Many of the participating hackers are in a similar situation to his — they are present or past foster care children.
“Our entire world is driven by how we interact with technology, so we have on our phones countless apps that can help us order pizza quicker, order packages on Amazon and know exactly what’s happening to our package,” said Rafael Lopez, commissioner of the federal Administration on Children, Youth and Families. “Why not learn other sectors and apply to human services the same kinds of lessons that are being learned? Especially for child welfare.”
Encouraged by a similar hackathon in Washington D.C. in May, Lopez helped organize the New York City version.
Kendall took part in the policy hackathon, choosing one of seven different policies to hack: support after hours, empowering youth advocacy, encouraging healthier decision making, easing the transition out of foster care, bettering support services, finding suitable family pairings and lowering failed adoption rates.
“You could be locked out, not safe, running away or need basic needs, and you don’t know who to call,” Kendall said. “This is supposed to give kids that are in crisis a way out — this situation happens to me a lot. And it happens to others too, like the people I work with, because everyone in foster care goes through some kind of crisis.”
Courtney Ramirez, the executive director for youth and parent engagement within the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, helped formulate the policy list with a team of people in the foster care system.
“It can be really easy to focus on individual outcomes like fewer days in care or the number of foster families, but I think it’s really important that we focus on the fact that this is an individual,” Ramirez said as she gesticulated to Kendall. “Yeah, he’s in foster care, but he’s also a student athlete. This is a young man who has passion and drive and dreams and goals, and we need to make sure that we shape the policies around supporting his visions.”
She said that while people face systemic issues in foster care, it is also important to keep the focus on individuals and their success.
Ramirez said that people sometimes lose focus about what success and transitioning out of foster care looks like and that it is important to look beyond getting people in foster care to the age of 21 — when they leave foster care. She thinks that figuring out how to ensure everyone in the foster care system receives the attention they deserve is the crux of foster care system issues, so he encourages people to ask themselves what they want for their own children when thinking of the foster care system.
Kendall formulated four different circumstances when people in the foster care system could use the app, but he and his team struggled to find six situations — the suggested amount by their adult mentor. The team already had getting purposefully locked out, running away from the home, not feeling safe and finding unmet needs. They formulated ideas to add to the list as their mentor took the sheet to show other people.
“I feel like I need to speak about it and find solutions for these problems,” Kendall said. “Emotionally, I don’t think a person should have to go through everything, and if we can get this to happen, kids don’t have to go through life as frustrated.”
They wanted to keep the functions of the app simple, since it served one purpose: to give people in the foster care system assistance once the typical workday ended. When their mentor returned, he added two more: getting stuck somewhere and needing an occasional break from the family.
“This is beautiful,” Kendall said as he picked up the sheet of paper. “I really hope this happens.”