Can a Broken Foster Care System Be Fixed? These Philanthropists Think So

photo: Torgado/shutterstock

photo: Torgado/shutterstock

The foster care system in the U.S. is broken.  More than a third of foster kids leave the system without a high school diploma or GED, according to the Children’s Law Center of California. Fewer than half are employed in the first 12 to 18 months after aging out. A third of kids exhibit mental health disorders, often post-traumatic stress disorder. More than a quarter will be incarcerated in the first two years after leaving the system, and a third will need public assistance.

California is the state with the most kids in foster care by a long shot. The state’s system is twice the size New York's, the state with the second-largest foster care population. Foster care is a complicated problem, but improvements in California prove that these systems can change. In 2015, the state passed a bill that phased out group homes in favor of foster families. From 2000 to 2010, the state lowered the share of its children in the system by 45 percent, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

Within California, Los Angeles County is home to about a third of the state’s foster kids. Perhaps for that reason, L.A. is fast becoming a hub for foundations interested in moving the needle on foster care.

Last month, Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker put up $10 million to start the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families, which will focus on child welfare. The couple’s foundation has also been part of an ambitious public-private partnership with Los Angeles County to improve the foster care system that's included 12 other funders.

The center at UCLA will work to develop interventions for classroom and family support services and methods for addressing childhood trauma, and will pioneer new research on foster care, starting with the racial dynamics at play within the L.A. County system. Another big piece of the center's work, however, will be to collaborate with other stakeholders in the space, including nonprofits, other higher education institutions, K-12 systems, child and family advocates, and the county’s support services.

It’s a spirit of collaboration that has animated much of the philanthropic work on foster care in L.A., work in which the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation has played a major role. The couple is part of that Pritzker family, the owners and heirs of the Hyatt Hotel chain. Anthony is brother to J.B. Pritzker, who's known in philanthropic circles for his extensive work on early childhood education, and Penny Pritzker, former secretary of commerce under President Barack Obama.

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Unlike his two siblings, Anthony and his wife Jeanne are based in L.A., and much of their giving goes to California causes. Sustainability and the environment are key causes for Anthony. He’s given a lot to the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, including a $15 million gift in 2013 to support the study of urban sustainability.

Foster care is another big priority for the Pritzkers. In 2014, their foundation started the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative to support kids transitioning into adulthood. Grants from the initiative typically address emotional well-being, technological innovations, and financial independence.

Back in 2012, Jeanne Pritzker founded Foster Care Counts, a nonprofit she still chairs. The organization leverages volunteers and donations to fill the gaps in the foster care system. The organization has a big network of partners in the foster space. One of the purposes of the center at UCLA is to better connect researchers with local nonprofit and L.A. County support services, many of which the Pritzkers have involvement through Foster Care Counts.

The Pritzkers were also among the 13 funders that joined L.A. County to start the Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships to focus on child welfare in 2016. Southern California Grantmakers played a key role establishing the center and has served as its fiscal agent. (The early history of this unique effort is described in a report by SoCal Grantmakers and Casey Family Programs that you can read here.) The center is funded by private and public money, and reports to the county’s office of child protection.

Private-public collaborations are exciting because they mix the reach of the public sector with funds from the private sector. The county is better positioned to identify gaps in its own programs, and philanthropists can fill those gaps. A partnership that brings foundations together has the added benefit of encouraging coordination among private funders to ensure philanthropists aren’t duplicating efforts. 

Related: Inside Los Angeles’ Ambitious Public-Private Child Welfare Partnership

The foundations that signed on were the Ahmanson Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, David Bohnett Foundation, Blue Shield of California Foundation, California Community Foundation, the California Endowment, Community Partners, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Liberty Hill Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, and Weingart Foundation.  

The Pritzkers aren’t the only philanthropists betting big to reform the foster care system in L.A. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, also a member of the private-public partnership, is another major player in foster care. The foundation splits its funding in this area between L.A. and New York, and just finished the first phase of its foster youth strategy in 2017. The five-year phase rang up an impressive total of $53.5 million in investments. The foundation’s foster care work focuses on strengthening systems and policy for transition-age foster youth, expanding and sharing knowledge with the field, and advancing innovative transition-age foster youth programs.

If foundations can move the needle on foster care in L.A., a county with more kids in the foster care system than many states, it could provide a template for better outcomes for these kids elsewhere. California’s improvements in the last 20 years show despite the foster care system's many problems, it can be improved. With big gifts and real efforts at coordination with the public sector, and among foundations and nonprofits, philanthropy may have a shot.