A $22 Million Plan to Connect California Foster Youth with Free Phones and Internet

The California Public Utilities Commission will vote next Thursday on a plan that would give a free smartphone with wireless service to about 33,000 current and former foster youth in California. Photo: Pexels

Deitrick Foley has had 12 different phone numbers since he got his first phone at age 13. But throughout an adolescence spent in foster care, the one number Deitrick always keeps on speed dial is that of his twin brother, Devonte.

The brothers haven’t lived together since they were 13. That was when Deitrick was sent to live in a series of group homes while Devonte stayed with their grandmother.

But they’ve kept in regular contact over the years, even as Devonte left California in 2015 to attend school in Wisconsin while Deitrick stayed in Los Angeles. Now 22, Deitrick still calls his brother at least twice a week.

For him, a phone is a “symbol of hope.”

“You don’t want to lose contact with your family members for anything,” Deitrick said about having a phone while in foster care. “It’s really important to talk to someone who can relate to your situation, and especially during desperate times — it can be a lifesaver more than anything.”

Next week, advocates in California are hoping to make phone and Internet access a lot easier for California foster youth.

A new pilot project would extend a free smartphone – complete with a calling plan, wireless service and a mobile hotspot – to about 33,000 current and former foster youth between the ages of 13 and 26. The $22 million plan is now backed by the head of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), and the full commission will vote on the two-year venture at a meeting on Thursday, April 25 in San Francisco.

The plan was put together by Boost Mobile and iFoster, a national nonprofit organization based in Truckee, Calif., that works to provide foster youth with the resources and support they need to make a successful transition into adulthood. The program would be an extension of California’s LifeLine program, which is managed by CPUC and provides affordable communications services for low-income residents in the state.

Advocates are hoping that the free Internet access provided through the phones could be an important way to overcome digital disparities faced by foster youth in the state. For youth separated from family, the Internet offers many positive social and emotional benefits, but that digital connection is also increasingly important in today’s world where so many transactions now require Internet access.

“There is an expectation in society right now that you are connected,” said iFoster CEO Serita Cox. “If you’re applying for a job it’s all online. So are government benefits. If you don’t have access, how is that going to happen?”

Every cellphone user across the country pays a Universal Service Fund tax as part of their cell phone bill. That money goes toward LifeLine programs in each state, which offer low-income households a subsidized phone plan that allows for emergency calls and a certain amount of local calling. In the past, that money went toward subsidizing landlines, but that’s changed as more households have given those up in favor of mobile service.

In 2014, CPUC expanded the California LifeLine program to include wireless devices, including a cellphone with up to 1,000 minutes of talk time and some texting.

According to Cox, that development had enormous potential for California foster youth in extended care, who could qualify if they were on MediCal or receiving CalWorks benefits. Many foster youth buy prepaid “burner” phones, and lose contact with family, friends and social workers when the money runs out.

“Youth may be carrying phones, but often they’re not working,” Cox said. “They don’t have stable numbers. If you talk to any social worker, they’ll tell you that they often don’t have a regular phone number to reach my youth because they’re constantly buying burner phones when they have a bit of money.”

Relatively few California foster youth were able to take advantage of the 2014 expansion because of an application process that can take up to three months to complete and burdensome eligibility requirements that don’t mesh well with the realities of foster care.

For example, as a holdover of its landline program, LifeLine recipients must be associated with their own household, and only one line can be linked per household.

“The LifeLine program assumes that you live in a single housing unit and that you aren’t moving,” Cox said. “If you live in a group home or a dorm, that’s registered as a business, not a home, and you are getting rejected.”

Under the pilot program, iFoster is going to take responsibility for determining eligibility requirements for foster youth. Out of the $22.3 million budget, iFoster will receive about $184,000 during the course of the project to work closely with county child welfare agencies to make sure foster youth have the necessary documentation to participate in the program.

Providing cellphones to foster youth is the latest effort by iFoster to bridge the technology gap for youth in care. For several years, they’ve worked with a variety of organizations to provide laptops to foster youth in the state.

According to a University of Southern California evaluation of their laptop program, 21 percent of urban foster youth in the state have a computer at home and regular access to the Internet. That number is even worse for youth living in rural parts of the state. Just 5 percent of those foster youth have computer access. That compares with 90 percent of all youth in the U.S., and 79 percent of low-income youth.

Thalia Bernal, a 23-year-old former foster youth from La Mirada, said that while she was growing up in foster care cellphones and Internet access were a luxury to her. Getting a hold of them was not guaranteed, she said.

“I would have felt a lot safer if I had access to a smartphone,” Bernal said. “I like to think of smartphones as the remote controls in our lives. They are connected to everything else and if used correctly, it’s the tool we need to not only become wiser, but live a life full of opportunities.”

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 353 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.