Part 1 of a 3-part blog series about The Coalition’s National Program Advisor, Ian Forber Pratt
Ian Forber-Pratt went to the courthouse in 2009 to begin his first case as an Extreme Recruiter. He entered the courtroom to the sound of screaming. Ian backed against the wall as Mallory*, age 14, was wheeled out of the chamber, strapped down to a gurney.
In many ways, Mallory was typical of the kids served by Extreme Recruitment®. She was a teen. Her mother struggled with opioid addiction. Her father unknown. As a child in foster care, Mallory did not live with a foster family. Instead, she bounced from institution to institution. At 13, she had a child of her own who was quickly separated and placed with another family.
Ian did not fit the profile of someone working directly with the hardest-to-place youth in foster care. In his second year of a Master’s of Social Work program at the Brown School at Washington University, most of his peers were auditing policy and beginning academic research. But Ian’s passion was always to directly impact the lives of vulnerable children. As he searched for a practicum opportunity, he found a group of reform-minded social workers at the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition. He cold-called for a job.
When Ian started as a practicum student at The Coalition, the child welfare landscape was radically different. Though Washington University taught a curriculum of data, outcomes, and measurable success, those doing the work did not speak the same language. Social work was largely based on what felt right. The Coalition was looking to inject more rigor into the system.
“It was so exciting to get in on the ground level of something like Extreme Recruitment®,” says Ian. “The Coalition immediately set itself apart by committing to hard data. It’s not about reducing the human touch in the work we do, but reducing mistakes and setting aspirational goals.”
By bridging the gap between cutting-edge research and direct impact on children’s lives, The Coalition, aimed to raise the bar for success in the St. Louis community. Research had shown for years that older children were the most likely to “age out” of foster care without a permanent family. Only about 50% of kids who age out graduate from high school. One in five are homeless. One in four are incarcerated. 71% of girls will have their first child and more than 60% of those will have a second by the age of 21.
This is why Ian knew Mallory’s case would not be easy. She had no contact with family, and no understanding of her past. There were no consistent relationships in her life and a decade of trauma in her rearview mirror.
He began by reconnecting Mallory with relatives. With the assistance of The Coalition’s private investigators, Ian was able to give Mallory a better understanding of where she came from. Despite her family’s struggles, they had strengths, and by helping her see them, Ian was able to convince Mallory she had her own.
Beyond the challenges of the direct work, Ian and his colleagues still met resistance in the community.
“We would go into meetings and nobody understood why we were there,” says Ian. “They were asking, ‘What do we gain from challenging the status quo?’ It took enormous persistence on the part of the team just to walk in and say ‘We are not going to stop until this child has options for a family and community.’”
Their determination was unwavering.
“They began each Extreme Recruitment® meeting with the question, ‘If we do nothing for this child today, where will he or she be in 5 years?’” Debbie Genung, Sr. Development Director for The Coalition, recalled. “When it came to finding safe, nurturing homes for these kids, no stone was left unturned. It was incredible to watch the program – and the team – grow.”
As the program gained traction and more children were successfully reconnected with their families and placed in permanent homes, partner agencies began to refer cases to The Coalition.
It wasn’t long before news of this groundbreaking work began to spread beyond St. Louis.
In 2010, the New York Times gave credence to the innovation and efficacy of the program in an article discussing the importance of family finding and relative placements. Shortly after, TIME Magazine published an in-depth article about Extreme Recruitment, highlighting an extraordinary case in which Ian and The Coalition’s private investigator found 128 relatives for a child in foster care – all in a one-week timespan.
But what drove home the team’s impact most were the stories. Mallory did not have an easy life before Extreme Recruitment, and she was not suddenly healed by Ian’s work. But he set her up to succeed, connecting her to a network who could assist and inspire her in times of crisis. He helped Mallory find her strengths. Ian helped her become a part of something. Today, Mallory has a great job with benefits at one of the region’s largest healthcare systems, and has custody of her children.
Seeing kids meet their potential in the face of overwhelming odds and a dysfunctional system inspired Ian, but it also made him question what else was possible. Bearing witness to that success lit a spark which grew over the years into something like a compulsion. It lit a spark to go home.
Ian was adopted as a newborn in 1980 from Calcutta, India. He grew up in a supportive, doting family. But since he could remember, he felt a yearning to go back, to change the stories of children who had been born like him but had not found the gift of family.
As he prepared for a career in child welfare, Ian began to study Hindi, even enrolling in a language immersion course at Saint Louis University. At the end of long nights spent studying or working cases for The Coalition, he’d think about how to apply what he had learned to create similar impact in India.
What he imagined was beyond the scale of anything he’d done, or even anything he’d studied. Ian dreamed of a foster care system that stretched across India. A system to protect children from abuse and neglect, place them in safe and loving families rather than institutions, and help communities heal from cycles of poverty and trauma.
In April of 2011, Ian sold almost everything he owned, and, with a little seed money from his colleagues at The Coalition, moved to Udaipur, India to attempt the largest child welfare reform in the history of that country.
Ian laughs when asked about what he was thinking as he left. “If I had known hard it was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have even gotten started.”
*Name changed for privacy