Think of Us founder Sixto Cancel is opening ways for young adults in foster care to help change it.
Sixto Cancel was taken in by his first foster family when he was eleven months old and after surviving a range of traumatic experiences with foster families, he “aged out” at 23, starting Think of Us while at college. Ashoka’s Megan Villanueva spoke with Sixto about his journey and his vision for transforming foster care and the child welfare system.
Sixto, tell us more about the problem you’re working on.
Today, nearly 875,000 people between ages 14 t0 26 have spent time in foster care, often the result of neglect or abuse. Only 22% will enter a permanent arrangement via reunification with family, legal guardianship, or adoption. The rest “age out” of foster care, typically at 18 or 21, and are expected to completely care for themselves — an expectation society doesn’t have of their peers in supportive homes. Outcomes at age 26 are horrendous: 24% have high school degrees, 3% graduate from college, 20% experience homelessness, 81% of males experience arrest and average earned incomes of $12,000 per year. The cost to society of the 23,000 young people who age out of every year? A staggering $7.6 billion. Our foster care system is fundamentally broken.
Why is the system failing?
It’s not set up to support healing and self-sufficiency and lacks a feedback loop to its primary users: the children, teens, and young adults in its care. Decisions are made for them, not with them, and everything is set up to minimize short-term risk — at the expense of building healthy decision-making and agency. Practically, this means that case workers decide many things: when you learn to drive, whether you can spend the night at a friend’s house, go to therapy, or travel with a school club. My entire childhood and adolescence was filled with no, you can’t, it’s not possible, wait your turn, the system won’t allow, you really shouldn’t, stay in your place, you think you know better but you don’t.
When you transition from, or “age out” of foster care, how does that work?
Federal law requires all young people in foster care to have a transition plan, with various milestones. But it’s largely built by case workers — paid professionals — and it often doesn’t consider you, your goals, or your dreams. So you go from exercising no goal-setting and decision-making to: suddenly you are in charge of all decisions. Getting a job. Finding housing. Paying rent. Applying for college. And for most of us, there are no unpaid family-like structures, no caring adults, to help.
And this is where Think of Us comes in. Tell us what you’re working on.
Think of Us starts by asking young people for feedback that we use to upgrade programs, help young people build personal networks, and optimize processes and workflow. We have a tech-enabled platform that invites young people to share their experiences and needs with program staff and other adults. It embeds their voice across the system, including the transition out. Imagine as a young person, instead of goals being determined by an adult who may be supportive but is also a paid professional, you yourself get to pick the goals that you want.
And you have “personal advisory boards.” How does that work?
Yes, this is important. We’re adding a group of people who’ve traditionally not been part of the transition process before. They are supportive adults identified by the young person — they can be especially supportive social workers, older peers who have successfully navigated the transition to adulthood, or others who are trusted by the young person. So when services are no longer available, there’s a group that you’ve chosen and invited and they feel invested in your success.
What are some of your broader reform goals?
All of the things we’re working on are about redefining the power dynamics between young people and the treatment and services they’re getting. We’re putting them and their choices at the center and trying to understand and make visible and transparent to everyone their experiences, challenges, pain points, and also bring together the latest literature and research. The end goal: use the data to co-design solutions for individuals and the whole system.
Results so far?
Our initial testing provided us with insights — and new relationships are forming because everyone is on the platform, looking at the same information. So whether it’s your therapist, psychiatrist, ILP person or probation officer, all these people who are paid in your life are seeing the same thing for the first time. So the upgrade is not just from paper-based process or Word Doc to an interactive system, it’s about using this data to drive policy reform, resource distribution, changes in practice, and accountability. We can tell things like if responding to, say, African American males is taking twice as long.
Looking ahead, what will be different in 5 to 10 years?
The system will be optimized to include input and ideas from the users, the clients: young people in foster care. Transition plans will be created based on what young people believe they need. Every young person will have a network of people, unpaid, who are there to support them, way after the services are done. We imagine a world where no young person ages out of foster alone, without a plan for what happens next.
What about your work most energizes you?
This country promises to all its citizens that if we work hard enough, if we dream big enough, we will have the opportunity to chase our dreams and make them a reality. But the truth is many Americans run into gaps and traps along the way. Addressing these in the foster care system is my contribution – it’s creating a pathway to full citizenship. I want to help the country live up to its promise and potential.
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