A Spartanburg startup is hoping new tech tools can be a game-changer for foster families and the children in their care.
Imagine a smartphone application that provides comprehensive solutions to problems facing foster families. That’s the idea behind SharpenFAMILY, according to its creators and their partners at the United Way of the Piedmont.
“The idea was to build something that helps foster families be more resilient,” said Robyn Hussa Farrell, co-founder of Sharpen. “Foster families are working with some of the most vulnerable people in our community, and the goal is to set them up for success.”
SharpenFAMILY is a platform that will link users with clinically-vetted resources and content tailored for specific situations — a new foster dad, a child acclimating to new surroundings or an aunt stepping in to foster her niece, for example — and the additional challenges they face.
It will integrate film, music, empathic stories and research, and it will also connect foster families through secure social media features including private messages and group forums. There will be resources and answers dedicated to foster system processes, legal terminology, and materials to speed the integration of children into the home.
Heather Witt, vice president of community and collective impact for United Way of the Piedmont, said the application grew from more than 18 months of discussions about ways to improve outcomes for children living with foster families.
“This was really an attempt to elevate the knowledge around childhood trauma, connect foster parents with needed resources and really help recruit new foster parents,” Witt said.
The need for foster families in Spartanburg County remains high.
According to the S.C. Department of Social Services, nearly 3,200 investigations into child living conditions were launched in Spartanburg County last year alone, finding more than 700 reports of neglect, 280 cases of physical abuse and 759 instances of “substantial risk of physical abuse.”
The number of children placed into foster care in Spartanburg County has also risen in recent years, from 123 children in 2013 to 422 children in 2016, 392 children in 2017, and 377 in 2018.
“There is such a dire need to have access to more foster parents,” Witt said. “And so we wanted to be able to partner with Sharpen to create a resource for them, and for their children.”
Witt said the uncertainty that comes with the prospect of raising a child is only heightened for new and potential foster parents.
“While there’s no one-size-fits-all owner’s manual that comes with a child, we realized there’s a lot of information that could benefit these families,” Witt said.
Sharpen was founded by Robyn Hussa Farrell and Tim Farrell to develop desktop and mobile applications to connect people with tools and resources that can link people up with the help they need.
To date, much of their work has focused on developing solutions for veterans or those struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.
They received at least one round of venture capital funding late last year.
Robyn Hussa Farrell said the framework’s design allows it to be adapted to a variety of different topics, in this case the foster care system.
Witt said she envisions the parenting resources to one day expand beyond just foster care system.
“All families need this kind of information,” Witt said. “So while this initial rollout will be geared toward the network of Upstate foster care families, I think it could have much, much broader applications. Active parenting, early childhood development, there are all these issues that every single parent has at one time or another, and I could see many people getting a lot out of SharpenFAMILY.”
The new app goes live May 15.