By Elizabeth Amon
Thousands more California foster youth between the ages of 13 and 26 will have the opportunity to receive free cell phones with online access following a Thursday vote by California’s public utility commission that broadens an existing pilot program and makes it permanent.
“This is monumental,” said Serita Cox, CEO of the Truckee, California-based iFoster advocacy organization. It will be“a new government benefit for foster youth.”
The vote Thursday by the California Public Utilities Commission has sweeping implications for former foster youth ages 13 through 26 who will now permanently have the opportunity to receive a guaranteed line connecting them with personal support, school and employers.
Allocating $10 million, the commission broadened and made permanent what had previously been a time-limited statewide pilot program reaching youth in 56 California counties. The program will be permanent beginning in February 2023, when those with foster care backgrounds can receive free smartphones with a calling plan, wireless services and internet hotspots.
Cox said the free phones were critical for bridging the digital divide, and helping youth succeed in their transition from foster care to self-sufficient lives. Under the pilot program in place for the past two years, the phones have allowed young people to participate in school, communicate about jobs and stay in touch with their support network, including family and friends. Those needs are more urgent than ever, given the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 global health pandemic.
Former foster youth Yerimera Rodriguez is among those served by the cell phone program. The young, first-time mom wastrying to manage with a newborn and a double-major’s load of college classes when life shut down because of COVID-19. Isolated at home without Wi-Fi, she lost access to both school and support systems — essentially overnight.
“I’m actually able to finish my schoolwork because of this phone,” the then-23-year-old Rodriguez told The Imprint in May. And with the Wi-Fi hotspot it provided, she could connect her laptop to the internet to attend online classes.
Her son Calvin, who turned 1 in April, stayed connected too. The toddler maintained contact with family members via video chat — critical bonding for Rodriguez, who studies child development and psychology at Los Angeles Trade Tech College.
iFoster’sinitial two-year pilot project, which cost $22.3 million, was part of California’s LifeLine program, also overseen by the Public Utilities Commission. California LifeLine provides affordable communications services for low-income residents in the state, through a federal program funded by a tax on phone bills.
The commissioners did not comment on the issue at their online meeting Thursday when they approvedthe program on a consent vote.
Commissioner Genevieve Shiroma recommended the extension of the pilot program in a document to her colleagues, finding that the iFoster project to date hadachieved its objective of lowering barriers for California foster youth. It also provided “numerous benefits,” allowing participating foster youth to connect with “essential services, remote learning, supportive services, social workers, mentors, legal counsel, family and friends.”
To date, 11,000 current and former California foster youth, ages 13 through 26, have received a free phone through the program. Their telecom services were originally provided in partnership with Sprint, which was bought by T-Mobile, and continued the pilot program.
The young people who have received the phones are spread across all but two of California's 58 counties. Currently, about 16,000 youth are eligible for a phone, which translates to a 70% enrollment rate, according to iFoster.
Cox said iFoster is adding 300 to 350 new youth a month. Those former foster youth no longer in foster care, between ages 21 and 26, are the most difficult to track and enroll in the program. The organization partnerswith colleges, transitional housing providers and hundreds of other agencies working with older youth to try to reach them.
Foster youth in California experience a stark “digital divide” from their peers. A 2016 evaluation by University of Southern California researcher Jeremy Goldbach found that just over a quarter of California foster youth surveyed had a computer at home, compared to roughly 90% nationwide.
With the pandemic and the shift to online learning, greater social isolation and the need for virtual support, access to the internet became even more critical. “One youth told us, I would have committed suicide if I didn’t have my iFoster phone so I could call my support network when I needed it,” Cox said.
The organization has brought similar programsto New York, Kentucky and Mississippi, and is in talks with Washington, Virginia and Michigan. Cox said the organization's “next move” is to take the pilot programto the federal government, so foster youth across the country could have access to a cell phone and Wi-Fi.