LA Foster Kids Will Get Free Smartphones Starting in June

iFoster employee Monica Rodriguez holds a model of the free smartphone after the commission vote. (Photo courtsey iFoster)

In 2019, it's pretty clear that all young people need smartphones to function on a day-to-day basis.

That was the consensus among California Public Utilities Commissioners, who voted on Thursday to approve a two-year pilot program that will give eligible foster youths across California a free smartphone.

The program, a partnership between Boost Mobile and iFoster, a nonprofit that provides resources to foster youths, allocates $22 million to provide smartphones to current and former kids and young adults in the foster system between the ages of 13 and 26.

Local advocates say the decision will improve safety and educational opportunities for the 30,000 young people in L.A. County who currently have open welfare cases.

iFoster will use about $184,000 of the $22 million to work with child welfare departments statewide, so that foster youth will have the documentation they need to apply for the smartphones. The state utilities commission estimates about 33,000 Californians will be eligible for the program.

The smartphone model of choice is the LG Empire. The phone plan —provided by Boost Mobile — will include unlimited text, talk and hotspot capabilities, and foster youth will be able to use them however they like. Access to those tech capabilities is "extremely important" to foster youths who might not have reliable internet access, according to Wende Nichols-Julien, the CEO of CASA of Los Angeles, a child welfare advocacy group.

"They really need access to communication and technology to be successful, to be safe, to be living normal teenage and young-adult lives," she said. "This is an opportunity to provide some of that normalcy to young people in the system."

An example of the monthly phone plan for foster youth. (iFoster )

Advocates for the phone program say it's hard for foster youth to succeed without a smartphone, which many of them often can't afford. Without one, they lose educational and social opportunities and aren't able to easily connect with people who could be key to their success, like lawyers and social workers.

Tech access isn't just a frivolity, it's an urgent need for foster youth, according to Serita Cox, CEO at iFoster. A 2018 survey on laptop ownership conducted by the nonprofit found that only 21 percent of urban California foster teens had access to a computer at home, and smartphones could fill that void (without costing as much).

Nichols-Julien said foster youth in L.A. County also specifically need tech access for personal safety reasons.

Foster youth in the county, according to Nichols, are vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking and sometimes encounter unsafe situations in their group or individual foster homes.

"Without access to a phone, it's really hard to get in touch with people who can keep you safe," she said.

Having a phone also improves a foster youth's ability to get a job and apply to scholarships and college programs. "Not being able to put down a phone number is kind of a red flag," for employers, Nichols said.

The pilot program will include quarterly surveys of foster youth over two years to track the success of the smartphones by evaluating factors like their impact on academic performance.

"It's certainly going to be, I think, a positive result," said Commissioner Martha Guzman-Aceves, who worked on the project proposal.

Distribution of the smartphones is expected to start in mid-June.

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