Part 3 of a 3-part blog series about The Coalition’s National Program Advisor, Ian Forber Pratt
On July 11, 2018, Ian Forber-Pratt boarded a plane to St. Louis. Over the last 9 years, he’d been at the forefront of a movement to change the face of child welfare in India.
Now he was headed back to America. India was a beautiful, vibrant place alive with a boundless potential for change. But Ian also had a young son, Zane, who Ian and his wife believed could have more opportunities back in the States.
Reluctantly, Ian went home. He had part-time work with Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) overseeing their global advocacy efforts. And he had Zane and Nargis at home, but Ian felt called to go back to another family, the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition where he started his career over a decade ago.
When Melanie Scheetz, Executive Director of the Coalition, picked up her phone, she was already working over a dilemma. The work the Coalition had going in St. Louis was high-impact, nationally important stuff. An independent study by a think tank in Virginia had shown their 30 Days to Family® program placed kids quicker, created more stable families, and even saved substantial taxpayer dollars. There was nothing like it happening in the country. But that was the problem. The Coalition had an obligation to share its discoveries, but its mission was solely focused on St. Louis. Driven by its values, but focused on its mission, Melanie found herself at an impasse.
That’s when Ian told Melanie he was back in the US. He asked her, “Is there anything you could use a hand with?”
Just weeks later, Ian was the Coalition’s National Program Officer. His first step was to meet internally with Coalition teams, trying to re-establish his sense of the American foster care landscape. His first realization surprised him.
“I had this rosy view of child welfare in the US. Years of work in the developing world had convinced me that America was this visionary, utopian place. But when I came back I realized most of the same problems I faced in India, they were actually happening here, too.”
While policies in the United States were often forward-thinking, they were implemented from the top down, with little regard for what the system could actually bear. In smaller towns and metro regions around the country, drugs and poverty stretched an overburdened, untrained, and underfunded system to its limit.
“Honestly, it’s astonishing,” says Ian. “You’ve got these policies, most of which need to happen, but they’re often written with a disconnect to the actual capacity in our communities, with unfunded mandates and not predictive for how social change actually happens.”
His initiation into these problems was immediate, as the United States was in the middle of implementing its largest foster care reform in a decade, the Families First Services and Prevention Act. Passed in early 2018, the law introduces much-needed reform intended to keep children out of foster care, as well as strict limits on the use of institutional facilities in which many children are housed.
As Ian tried to think through his first task – replicating 30 Days to Family® around the country – he began to see the issues as connected. He spoke with innovative, grassroots organizations around the country. He began to realize that, though change was ordered from the top, the real innovation was happening everywhere you looked. In the absence of even the barest support, angry and idealistic parents and professionals around the country were taking matters into their own hands. He met with dozens of leaders who wanted 30 Days to Family® in their own neighborhoods as soon as possible. But, more interestingly, he noticed that many had ideas of their own to share.
Ian spent months studying implementation science and meeting with experts at Harvard, the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, University of North Carolina, and the University of Maryland. He’d come to believe that someone at the national level would need to break through the silos all these innovative child welfare teams were operating in. But what he found in his meetings was that the US had a plethora of experts. We knew exactly what kids and families needed in order to thrive and grow and heal. But tragically, every call would end with the same refrain:
“So, do you have funding?”
What Ian realized during this research phase is that innovative solutions like 30 Days to Family® were not spreading nationally because there was no money to push them beyond the boundaries of their invention. Taxpayer money funded a bare-bones child welfare system that could just barely keep the majority of kids safe, to say nothing of allowing them to heal. But what he’d never seen, in India or in the history of American foster care, was an investment that would save every child. Lip service to vulnerable children was common, but fidelity to the potential of every child was few and far between.
“It was a heavy realization. Dark, even. But what I quickly realized is that most people at the Coalition know this already. They accept it and they say, okay, well, if the kids are still here, then so am I. What are you going to do?”
The implication of Ian’s realization was, and is, simple. The implication is that communities themselves will have to find ways to do more with less. They will have offer children a better chance at success, and themselves a greater risk of failure. Ian realized that the answer was in his lap.
“30 Days to Family® is everything that this new generation of solutions must be. It is grassroots, evidence-informed, family-driven, and child-focused. It helps kids heal to a degree that is really unique. And it does so while saving money we so desperately need to serve more children.”
But the answer wasn’t just 30 Days to Family®. The answer was much bigger. Within a few days, Ian and Melanie sketched out a big idea with the potential to change the face of child welfare. They imagined a new organization, supporting and supported by the Coalition, that would oversee the national spread of innovative solutions like 30 Days to Family®. But they imagined it as something more, a new way forward for child welfare where new ideas spread across the country in real time, electric and immediate, and the do-it-yourself, grassroots grit that had come to define what was right with our foster care reformers became the new norm.
That idea, the National Institute for Innovation in Child Welfare, became Ian’s sole focus at the Coalition. He reached out to mentors and experts, foster and adoptive parents, elected officials – anyone who might have a reason why it couldn’t work. What surprised him most, after years of slogging through a child welfare bureaucracy that is intractable in India as it is in the US, is that no one told him no.
They said go for it.
As Ian reached out to investors and partners, he met with curiosity, and even a little skepticism, but what he met with, more often than he expected, was hope.
Said one longtime academic and researcher of foster care issues:
“Ian, if you all can figure out how to do this, you’ll do something that’s never been done before for our kids and families.”
The Institute is still a dream. One day, it will be a vibrant, national center for reform, learning, and advocacy that connects the brightest and most passionate in our field. The Coalition will continue to develop groundbreaking solutions for the St. Louis region’s most vulnerable children, and the Institute will help spread those and other solutions nationally. We are still working as a team to design, strategize, and will this new adventure into being.
But none of us, Ian, Melanie, nor any staff, caregiver, volunteer, or donor to the Coalition – no single person – would be here without each other’s unwavering support. It has been a team effort, every step of the way. In this, our 30th year, we cannot thank you enough for the radical change you have created for our kids. They are not burdens, but our greatest gifts, and when they enter foster care, they are placed in trust. For recognizing their potential, we are forever grateful.
The Coalition Family