Think of Us
Powering a better long-term future for foster kids
Think of Us had a vision: to give kids aging out of foster care the tools and technology to empower their independence as young adults. But the accessible “digital locker” of personal documents they envisioned brought up privacy and HIPAA-compliance concerns.
Built on Cloud Content Management, the secure Think of Us app gives transitioning foster kids access to valuable documents such as birth certificates and helps them create a “personal advisory board” of supporting adults.
The roughly 20,000 kids who age out of the foster care system each year in the U.S. now have a way to advocate for themselves as they become independent. The Think of Us app gives kids the information and resources they need, while protecting their most critical, personal information — advantages that make a big difference in their lives.
When a child in the foster care system turns 18, he's on his own. Without permanent family support, things many of us take for granted — a place to live, higher-ed access, the advice and oversight of caring adults with life experience — do not exist for a lot of these kids. Which is why, by age 26, only 3% of those that aged out of foster care at 18 have a bachelor's degree, 20% are homeless, and 50% are unemployed.
"It's a pretty difficult journey. There's something concrete missing from supporting these young people," says Sixto Cancel, a former foster kid himself and now CEO of the startup Think of Us. The tech nonprofit aims to solve that major systemic problem for the 438,000 kids in foster care in the U.S. and the roughly 20,000 who age out of the system every single year. Think of Us works with foster care agencies, nonprofits, county and state governments, and other organizations to better support foster kids as they age out.
"Think of Us is about leveraging data and technology to empower and coach young people through that transition," explains Cancel. To do that, the startup needed to build on a single content platform that would enable innovation and compliance in equal measure.
Giving youth access to the docs they need, when they need them
When young people age out of foster care, one major challenge they face is gaining access to critical personal documents: ID cards, birth certificates, social security cards, ward-of-the-court letters, medical ID cards. Typically, those documents are held in physical file cabinets in caseworker offices, and if youth need access to them, they must arrange it with their caseworker. In 2014, a law was passed mandating that states and counties provide these kids with such crucial documents on their 18th birthdays. But so far, implementation has been challenging and ineffective, and this is a problem.
"When you turn 18," explains Cancel, "even if you're homeless, you need an ID. If you don't have one, you can't go to the shelter. These documents mean the difference between sleeping on the street that night or getting a bed." Working closely with county and state governments, Think of Us enlists Cloud Content Management to get essential docs out of file cabinets and into a secure, HIPAA-compliant digital locker. Built on Box, the Think of Us app gives foster kids easier access to the documents they need to live independent lives.
The app also provides kids with the ability to create a "personal advisory board," where they can invite staff, family, and other reliable adults to serve as a support system and take an active role in creating their own transition plan. Donna Rozell, COO of Think of Us, came from a case-management background, so she champions this point of view: "Young people have to be involved with making their own plans and setting their own goals. We call it 'nothing about me without me.' If you do it for them, the day they age out, they have nothing they need. Suddenly, they're couch surfing... or homeless."
With Think of Us, young people are at the center of creating, sharing, and enacting goals — all with utter confidentiality.
"Having the information you need at the moment of need is so critical, and that's what our relationship with Box represents. We need the reputation that Box security has."
Sixto Cancel, CEO, Think of Us
Beyond compliance into the realm of common sense
Compliance and security are non-negotiable in an app that stores sensitive personal documents. While Think of Us designed the app to meet all federal regulations, Cancel also strongly believed that the app needed to support kids from a common-sense usability perspective.
"When we started looking at partners to create a digital locker in child welfare," he says, "a lot of them didn't have a simple thing like a preview screen. Young people are looking at things from borrowed computers at libraries and foster homes and public places." That preview screen is important, because it prevents personally identifiable information like social security numbers from being held on a publicly used computer. Think of Us relied on Box to build in other common-sense security measures as well, such as the ability to expire passwords on docs. Now, when kids share their documents with others, those documents expire after a certain period of time.
The nonprofit considers the demographic of its users very carefully when designing for user experience. "These are not young people who are getting advice from parents about how to be a digital citizen," Cancel says. “But they're still teens, and they don't respond all that well to being bossed around." Darrell Booker, CTO of Think of Us, agrees: "Alerts and notifications should teach without telling. The app is designed to do the heavy lifting in terms of security, without making kids feel like they're bad or wrong."
An app that goes way beyond tech
Most apps are built with one success metric in mind: user numbers. This one is a little different. "It's not about young people having an app in their hands," says Cancel. "It's about, in a moment of crisis, do I have the information that I need, and the people that can coach me through? It's beyond tech, and that's what resonates with people."
Technology partners have been a huge part of the app's success. Cancel says: "It’s not just about, hey, we have great ideas, and look what we can build and be first to market! We bring our partners and innovators and everyone we work with in front of our young people to understand the problem."
Cancel believes that the best success metric Think of Us can have is that kids stop using the app. Ultimately, he wants the app to support them while they get on their feet. Once they've got their adult lives up and running, the goal is for them to be self-sufficient and fully enabled on their own.
"Where our app is most effective is in getting people together in person."
Sixto Cancel, CEO, Think of Us
The future of foster care, enabled by Cloud Content Management
Cancel and his team are enthusiastic about future innovations for the Think of Us app. One of the visions they have is to enable foster kids to record videos for use in their welfare check-ins. In the foster care system, youth are periodically asked to check in with a judge to review their welfare situation. It can be very intimidating for young people to step in front of an adult judge in a legal setting and speak their mind honestly. But it's critical that they do so, because it's one of the only opportunities they get to express their needs to someone who has the power to create change.
Cancel says, "It's important that young people are supported by the judges who have their cases, and that there's open communication." With a simple app, for instance, kids could record themselves speaking, and present that video to their assigned judge — in other words, to advocate for themselves authentically, in a technology format in which they feel comfortable. For most young people, recording a "selfie" video is far less intimidating than speaking to a judge or even creating a long written report.
"Equity looks like meeting a young person where they're at — on their phones, on video, engaged with technology."
Sixto Cancel, CEO, Think of Us
On a practical internal level, Cancel plans to use Box workflow capabilities for seamless internal document processes inside the nonprofit. He also envisions pairing up with an analytics company to put user-created data to use. That data can assist Think of Us in improving the app, but also help others in the foster care world better understand the kids’ needs. In this way, Think of Us will continue to empower foster kids into their adult lives.