There are over 400,000 young people in foster care in the United States alone. Without the support of a forever family, foster youth are left to navigate life decisions on their own, often amidst the emotional stress and adversity that comes with moving from foster home to foster home throughout childhood and adolescence. For Sixto Cancel, co-founder of Think of Us, it wasn’t moving from home-to-home that was most stressful, but rather the fear of wondering what would happen to him when he turned 18 and aged out of the foster system.
50% of youth who age out of the foster system every year end up homeless. Sixto didn’t want to become a part of that statistic, so he built up his own personal advisory board through the connections he had to supportive adults in his life who helped him accomplish milestones like saving money, buying a car, and getting his first apartment. Now through his tech nonprofit’s mobile app, Unify, Sixto and his team are empowering all foster youth to shape their futures by building their own digital personal advisory boards of supportive adults who can help them achieve their goals.
The impact of Think of Us is both short- and long-term. There’s an immediate need for this today among young people who need to set up their personal advisory boards to get the support they need to thrive after they exit the foster system. But Think of Us is also collecting valuable data that has the potential to shape the child welfare system and form of practice at a macro level, as well as drive new policies. Putting foster youth at the center and figuring out how the system and supportive adults can help them achieve their own personal goals for life success is a significant practice change within the system. In our interview with Sixto, he candidly shares his experiences with the foster system, the issues that persist today, and the way in which he plans to change this through Think of Us.
Can you tell me more about your background and your inspiration for launching Think of Us?
I have been in and out of the foster system for most of my life. I entered the foster system at 11 months old, and spent the next 17 years moving from place to place. My living situations ranged from foster care, to living back with my biological mother, to being adopted by an abusive woman, and then returning to the foster system at age 15. I was adopted when I was 9 and by the time I turned 13 I started to realize that my situation was not normal. I was forced to couch surf because of my adoptive mother. Despite calling the child abuse hotline, I was constantly told I could not return into foster care due to lack of evidence. The situation worsened and one day I was watching Law & Order when it dawned on me that I needed to start building my case of evidence to prove the abuse. I tried to do this by taping a tape recorder to my chest to record our interactions, but I found out I couldn’t use these tapes in a legal setting because I didn’t have her approval to record. One day without notice she up and moved and suddenly at 15 years old, I was back in foster care.
While this constant change was difficult, I was blessed to meet a lot of supportive adults growing up, particularly through my involvement with the Bridgeport Conservatory of the Arts which revolves around dance and theatre. We put on all these plays and ensembles around themes like self empowerment despite oppression and adversity, and through the program I met adults who went on to become my support system. I was never the best dancer or actor, but the people I met through this program helped to offset circumstances of abuse or neglect that I encountered in other facets of my life. When I was 13, my foster parent refused to acknowledge my birthday so one of my after-school teachers threw a birthday party for me in the cafeteria complete with a race car birthday cake. It didn’t even matter that I didn’t know most of the kids who came. This sort of support from adults kept me from turning extremely bitter and angry. It was when I became involved with the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative and worked with their local youth business center and advisory board that I started thinking about aging out and the skills needed to prepare for that moment. Hearing about all the bad situations foster kids found themselves in after aging out really instilled the fear of God in me to make sure I exited the system fully prepared for my adult life. I was able to save 4 certificates of deposit, which accumulated to enough money for me to buy a car and put down a deposit on an apartment when I graduated high school. When I was getting ready to move into my first apartment, one of my supportive adults called me and asked me to meet him at Target. Before I knew it, he just started grabbing everything you could possibly need for an apartment and throwing these items into shopping cards. He ended up filling 11 shopping cards and bought everything himself. It was so hard to process the fact that there were people who were willing to do this for me when my family wasn’t even there to play this role. It felt like winning the lottery and then finding out it was taxed.
So for me the inspiration for my work in foster care is that I have the privilege of having insight to a burden most people don’t understand. There are so many people who want to help youth in the foster system, but don’t know the best way to do so. For me, it was hard to manage my relationships with all my unique groups of supportive adults—how do you accept these contributions and manage the relationships without feeling like a charity case or doubting your self-worth?
When I went to the Clinton Global Initiative University, I met so many young people who were solving real world problems, and suddenly I felt like all I had done was share my sad story. I started rethinking my contribution to the field. I started learning about big data and predictive analytics four years ago, and I had the opportunity to meet Chelsea Clinton. I was sharing my feedback with her on reconnecting foster youth to education and the work force, and she looked at me and encouraged me to take action to implement my ideas. That’s when I decided to launch Think of Us.
What do you view as some of the biggest issues with the foster system today?
The purpose of foster care is to provide a temporary living situation until you are reconnected with your family. Some young people end up having to be adopted. For others, guardianship has to be transferred or they stay in foster care until they age out of the system. It’s our system’s responsibility to help these youth heal, develop their skill sets, and thrive—not just survive. Without support, they end up underemployed, undereducated, and faced with so many different negative outcomes. Foster care is a clear pipeline to the justice system, social services, and poverty. The research around surrounding young people with family-like support dictates this is the strongest way to ensure people have healthy life outcomes. You don’t always have to have the traditional family nucleus to access the supportive permanent connections one needs to succeed in life. We need to provide young people in foster care with more developmental experiences. Young people should be able to create their own developmental opportunities by leveraging the adults in their networks. Unify empowers youth to create their own program and teaches them how to maximize the relationships they have in their lives, versus waiting for someone else to create this sort of program for them.
Why did you specifically choose to focus on the transition to adulthood for foster youth versus reaching them earlier on in life?
We used to think that by adolescence the brain was fully developed. Part of that is true but in 2011 the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative came out with new research unveiling the fact that youth actually experience a period of brain development similar to the rapid development that occurs in early childhood. The report states, “Adolescents must take on distinct developmental tasks in order to move through emerging adulthood and become healthy, connected, and productive adults—and young people in foster care often lack the supports needed to complete these tasks.” You actually wire your brain based on developmental experiences. Pathways used become stronger in adolescence, and the ones that aren’t used prune away. Your brain goes through this critical moment during this phase of life, and we see a clear opportunity to rewire the brain during adolescence by training youth to focus on the transition to adulthood.
What made you realize there was a need for a tech product in a vertical where almost everything is handled in person?
Right now a lot of tech is used to automate processes. With the rise of Uber and Slack, tech has the ability to transform the way we do business. We used to have to call a taxi and use email to communicate between teams. At Think of Us, we want to use technology to change the practice in the system. Right now young people do not have a choice. Our app Unify gives them the power to say here’s my current situation, here’s where I want to go, here are the best action steps to get there, and here are the people from my personal network and the system that will become my personal advisory board. This plan around goals, action steps, and the supportive adults that will help youth achieve them is critical information that goes into the case plan which is presented to the judge. For the first time young people will have a very clear pathway to direct legal empowerment and control over their life outcomes. Our platform is giving these young people a new super power beyond what’s been unlocked before.
Our technology enables us to gather data and measure whether young people of color or the LGBTQ community are receiving less support. Extracting this data allows us to do advocacy at a deeper level, work with counties and their systems to fix this, and level the playing field. Right now as an industry we’ve spent 2.8 billion on technology for child welfare systems fit for the 80’s and early 90’s. We need modern technology and data to empower people to make decisions that will improve their outcomes. If i’m a social worker who has a hunch that something needs to be done to improve life for a kid, right now I don’t have the sort of data needed to make the best decision. Think of Us will collect data that can inform this decision making.
Can you describe your different areas of focus?
Right now we’re building our app, Unify, and we’re also working with Salesforce to provide feedback on the case management system they’re creating to empower social workers with new information and tools to make their jobs easier. The advocacy we’ve done in the past year has been around how to bring the child welfare system into the 21st century. The biggest achievement has been thanks to Commissioner Rafael Lopez. He was able to announce an update to technology and regulations around the comprehensive child welfare information system for the first time in 23 years. This change will allow the industry to build and deploy software for the child welfare industry at a much faster rate than was previously possible.
Are you building tools for case workers too?
Unify does have a staff login and this is the area in which we are working with Salesforce to create a different version of a case management system. Our vision is to build features like triggers, so for example, if someone has moved a specific number of times within a year, that would trigger an alert. We are figuring out how we can leverage data in a way that changes current practices and advises future decisions to best serve foster youth. This is the future of tech. Data that helps us better meet the needs of youth and foster care.
How exactly will foster youth use the Unify app?
When a young person has a vehicle they are more likely to have employment and engage at school. As an example, a young person would set a goal of saving up and purchasing a car. Once they add in this goal, action steps populate and they select the ones right for them and then match each step to the supportive adults they want to help. Those adults step up and might commit to something like a $500 one-to-one match to help you save up. If a supportive adult has a mechanic in the family, for example, their action step might be going with that young person to check out the car before they buy it. The supportive adults basically jump in to support in areas where a family member would typically help out. We want to replicate that through the Unify app. We want you to have a team of adults who act like your family. When the adults login, they get a notification and advice on how to best support that young person within a specific goal.
How do you increase trust with supportive adults?
Unify isn’t just a place you go to get help. Unify is a tool where people are able to advocate for themselves and present their needs and wants to take action. You could come onto Unify and request a bunch of stuff from the system, but that’s not the goal. This is about empowering young people to take their lives into their own hands and to have access to tools and content that guides them to achieve their goals.
What defines success for Think of Us?
We look at the number of times concrete support was provided to young people and how that translates into a connection to education or the work force. Over time we hope to see instances of need decrease for each young person. If we are successful, they will grow out of the app. Technology does not replace humans, but it can act like a booster to what we already do as humans. We want youth to grow to the point that they don’t need our app anymore. We envision a day where each youth is well-integrated into a family-like structure of supportive adults.