How can philanthropic resources be used to improve outcomes for children and families in foster care?
That was the guiding question of the “Conversations on Philanthropy” event presented by The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy. The discussion brought together more than 60 philanthropic leaders and child welfare experts to examine the issues confronting the foster care system and explore ways that philanthropy might catalyze effective change.
The forum featured a discussion between Andrew Bridge, executive director of the Child Welfare Initiative, which seeks fundamental reform of the nation’s child welfare systems, and Fred Ali, president and CEO of the Weingart Foundation and chair of the center’s board of directors, who served as moderator.
Ali began the talk by pointing out that despite significant investment of federal, state and philanthropic resources, the outcomes for children in foster care are poor. He asked Bridge about the causes and possible solutions.
Bridge said that in looking at the system it’s easy to answer that question harshly and negatively, but that leaves little place to go and makes it easy to walk away. Bridge said he hoped that if anything came from the day’s conversation, it’s that people shouldn’t walk away and that “there is a great deal of help and good and improvement we can do.”
In looking at the problems, Bridge discussed three main issues:
• programs that are locked or calcified and in which staff members and leadership may think it’s risky to make changes that don’t meet the needs of children
• incremental practices that may be in conflict and that have evolved to “wring out risk” but may also wring out opportunities for children. Bridge specifically pointed out limits to opportunities in employment, education and foster care families.
• well-intentioned policies that are uninformed. The policies may respond to individual events or newspaper stories, but they often do not reflect the needs of children.
Bridge also noted that the system is poor at recognizing funding stream opportunities, and millions of dollars that could be used to help children are left on the table.
In talking about how philanthropy can help, Bridge said that bringing leadership and credibility of philanthropic leaders to focus on foster care is very important.
He encouraged foundations to identify particular areas where, from an outside perspective, one can show improvements in programs, practices and policies.
Bridge cited examples in employment, where millions of dollars may be available but that local systems may not know how to access them in a way that is going to be meaningful. He also suggested that efforts are needed to improve the quality of the caregiver pool and to strengthen its capacity.
In discussing the impact that philanthropy can have, Bridge used the example of a grant focused on transitional housing that “catalyzed a whole series of reforms in policy and practice at all levels of government.”
“That would not have been possible without philanthropy,” Bridge said.
Ali, who was involved with the housing grant in his role at the Weingart Foundation, cautioned audience members “it was not easy, but the lesson we learned is that you have to stay with something overtime because change comes slowly, and there are many obstacles.”
Such resolve was a common theme of the conversation. Bridge, who grew up in foster care and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School, acknowledged that his determination played a part, but he wondered “why would we ever create a system that demands such a level of resiliency from a child.”
As for his own case, Bridge said that “maybe it was more of a case where “resiliency met opportunity.”
James Ferris, director of The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, added: “These conversations are part of the center’s continuing effort to bring together different segments of the philanthropic community to bridge fragmentation within the sector and leverage its power to solve problems.”