UnSystem Innovation Cohort


5 agencies representing 15 jurisdictions in 4 states
5 simultaneous experiments
Monthly in-person work sessions
3-year commitment to transformation
20 leaders and innovators fed-up with traumatizing families

1 common aspiration:
Family connections are always preserved and strengthened.

The UnSystem Innovation Cohort is Alia’s 3-year commitment to guiding a set of select agencies through an unprecedented, whole-system, UnSystem transformation. Ten public child welfare agency leaders representing 5 jurisdictions and 14 counties were selected in 2017 to participate based on their commitment to family-honoring practice and their ability to redesign their systems.  

Each jurisdiction is paired with one professional and one lived experience guide. The guides are crucial to the process and bring broad and deep expertise ofthe child welfare system from inside and out, with professional and sometimes overlapping personal experience. Their contributions offer the needed bookends of our systems change perspective – from the widest view historically and geographically, to the most intimate and personal.

Team Alia, the Cohort agency leaders, and every Cohort guide are committed to bringing UnSystem concepts, principles, and practices to reality on an agency and community-wide level.


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Cohort founded on interdisciplinary design

Based on Ten of Ten for Kids, a 3 ½-day human centered design event Alia held in May 2017, a broad and deep cross-section of those who care about and are affected by the child welfare system, in all their wisdom, were able to come up with an answer to the question we should have asked in the first place. Rather than, “How might we build a child welfare system that actually works for children and families?” they answered this more poignant query: “When families struggle, how can we best help keep them safe and together?” Families are the perfect design of a “child welfare system,” and we see now that our job as a community is to support the system that every child is already born into! No need to spend time creating something new, we only need to find ways to redesign the machine we’ve created to do healing and connecting and supporting work, not separating and punishing. 

From the Ten of Ten for Kids resounding theme of strengthening families rather than current systems, the concept of an UnSystem was developed. The following are the Guiding Principles of an UnSystem, identified with continued conversations and information gathering after Ten of Ten for Kids:

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Because the Guiding Principles are signals we are headed in the right direction and not a prescriptive practice model, Alia first planned to test each idea separately in partnering agencies across the country, developing practice approaches and sharing our learnings bit by bit.  

Instead, pilot-weary leaders asked Alia to convene efforts for those who wanted to go all in, and there were enough people with enough momentum to take it on. We gathered a group of agency leaders, child welfare professional guides, those with personal system experience, and decided to meet for an undetermined amount of time to figure out this transformation we all wanted to achieve.

It took us the first six months of meeting to get to know each other and figure out what it is exactly we were trying to do. Who are we together, what will we do, how will we accomplish it, and what are our roles? Then we started digging in to goal-setting, mindset shift, and practice adjustments.

Alia supported the travel and accommodation of all Cohort members the first year of monthly, in-person gatherings. We met in our small office and used the office building storage room for breakout sessions. Meals, travel, time, deep commitment, wide-open thinking, and lots of Post-its were key in strategizing and implementing changes on the ground.

Many more details have been captured about the formation and early days of the Cohort and more recently, the Year One Practice report. After a year of practice – with mostly shifts in agency mindset and no additional funding – there was a 12% reduction in the number of youth in foster care and a 37% reduction of the number of youth in congregate care. This case study was written specifically for other leaders, with concrete implementations and advice from Cohort leaders.

Sign up for our periodic newsletter for upcoming events specific to bringing UnSystem practice experiments to your agency. Get in touch with us if you have any questions or want to talk further about any part of the Cohort; we would be delighted to hear from you.