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How our partnership with Foster America is creating change for kids

At seven years old, Sherry Lachman was all too familiar with courtrooms. She had been placed in foster care for two years, where she was passed among foster families, judges, and caseworkers.

“I remember raising concerns about my negative experiences to anyone I thought might listen,” she says. “And I remember being completely ignored.”

Sherry felt alone in a system that cares for as many as one in 17 kids in the United States, which observes National Foster Care month each May. As an adult, Sherry set out to improve that system. After a career as an attorney and as a policy maker in education and child welfare, she founded Foster America.

A short film about our work with Foster America.

Foster America is an 18-month fellowship program, partly inspired by initiatives such as Teach for America and Global Health Corps that have created movements for change. Foster America recruits innovators from other sectors with expertise in data analytics and technology, marketing and human-centered design, finance, and strategy and operations. About a quarter of the fellows have personal experience with the foster-care system—as foster children, foster parents, or mentors.

Fellows are placed in child-welfare agencies across the country and lead major interdisciplinary reform projects. Half take on preventative work, helping to safely reduce the number of kids who end up in foster care.

The other half seek to improve foster-care conditions and dramatically improve the outcomes of children in the system, which has a deep connection to poverty, inequality, and other societal challenges. As many as 70 percent of youth in the juvenile-justice system have been in the child-welfare system; one third of homeless young adults and at least 60 percent of human-trafficking victims have histories in foster care.

As many as one in 17 American children enter foster care.

Dan Stephens, a senior partner in our Washington, DC, office, didn’t know about the far-reaching impact the foster-care system has on society until he learned of Sherry’s vision for Foster America. “It wasn't just a story of how terrible things were,” remembers Dan. “For Sherry and her team, it was also a story of how there’s so much you could do to make it better.”

McKinsey began serving Foster America as a pro bono client in 2016, and Dan joined the organization’s board, leading teams of colleagues to support its sustainable growth through annual engagements.

“McKinsey played an essential role in the launch and evolution of Foster America, helping us develop the fellowship program from a seed of an idea into a full-scale program with four generations of fellows today,” says Sherry.

We helped design the fellowship’s rigorous selection process and trained staff in interview best practices. As the organization grew, we helped improve its strategic-planning process and operating model, designed board governance and purpose strategies, and trained the executive team.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what the Foster America team has been able to achieve,” says Dan.

For example, a fellow is helping Washington state design innovative solutions to reduce the pipeline of young adults who go from foster care to homelessness.  She’s drawing on her own background in human-centered design as well as getting valuable input from foster youth.

It’s also a story of how there’s so much you could do to make [foster care] better.

Dan Stephens, McKinsey partner

And in Rhode Island, a fellow used marketing and human-centered design skills to help the state increase the recruitment and licensing of foster and kinship families by 25 percent in one year. This allowed the state to reduce by one-third the number of foster children sent to impersonal institutional facilities, the alternative when no other foster homes are available.

In the past three years, Foster America has placed nearly 50 fellows in 30 agencies across the country and is on track to place over 100 new leaders in the field over the next two years. “In this relatively small field,” says Sherry, “that’s enough of a tipping point to have a major influence on the sector and create change for kids.”