Why Calif.’s Lifeline Wireless is a Big Deal for Foster Youth

As reported in The Imprint last week, California has extended its emergency telephone program for low-income households to include wireless options. The inclusion of non-landline phones in the federally subsidized Lifeline Program has been a thorny subject for spending hawks, who have taken to calling such expansion “Obamaphone.”

In California, inclusion of cell phones was preceded by more than a year of back-and-forth on how to accomplish that. Voucher system or fixed rate? (Fixed rate won). Pre-registration versus qualification? (Pre-registration).

Everything about the expansion came out in favor of foster youths, according to iFoster Founder Serita Cox, who was among the most vocal proponents of Lifeline wireless in the state. Cox’s organization is dedicating to securing affordable resources, products and services for foster youths and the people who care for them.

So: why is this a big deal? We asked Cox to lay out some of the impact of the program on the lives of foster youths.

Consistent contact: “Foster Youth can’t afford cell phones so they go with prepaid plans when they can and then lose service,” Cox said. “They have no way to stay connected to their support networks.”

When they lose service, she continued, they will move on to whatever plan they can get instead of turning the same phone back on. They “get a new phone number so they get lost very easily and their social workers can’t get a hold of them to help them,” she said.

Other Assistance: The Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) recently approached iFoster about a problem: the agency is losing track of 70 percent of their youth after emancipation, before their workers could connect them to further assistance.

“This was the exact problem [DCFS] approached us on when they asked if we could help get a low cost, fixed rate cell plan to pilot a project to see if giving cell phones would help keep emancipating youth connected to support services,” Cox said.

Default Lines: The subject of cell phones came up recently as Cox met with Dr. Dionne Washington, who directs the the Guardian Scholars program at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

According to Washington, “the number one reason why foster youth get bad credit and then are blocked from being able to purchase anything is because they sign up for cell phone plans and then can’t pay – defaulting on their service and getting their credit dinged.”

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