Many social workers, other helping professionals, and foster care alumni have recognized the value in utilizing technology to support foster care youth. However, there is a gap in the scholarly research and development of technology solutions in this area.
In October of 2015, the Pritzer Foster Care Initiative sponsored a conference regarding “Web and Mobile app Solutions for Transition Age Youth.” at the conference, it was suggested that technology innovations for the foster care population should be amassed and made available via a single access point. At a similar event, the “Children’s Rights Summit” in December of 2015, they also discussed the myriad ways technology could be used to overcome legal barriers for foster care youth, families, and professionals.
The push for mobile applications, websites, and video games to engage and empower foster care youth is driven by the poor outcomes associated with “aging out”. Scholars define aging out, which occurs between 18 to 21 years old, as the process by which foster youth surpass the maximum age for foster care. Youth who leave foster care are presumed to join the ranks of: the homeless, undereducated, unemployed, incarcerated, substance abusers, those with unwanted pregnancies, and victims of poor credit and identity theft.
According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analyse and Reporting, the number of youth who aged out of foster care during 2013 was 238,280. The racial/ethnic breakdown of these youth was: white 45% or 106,487; black 24% or 56,053; Hispanic 20% or 48,661; and Bi-racial or multiracial 6% or 13,889.
National Youth in Transition Database (NYTD) captures data in the following areas for foster care youth aged 17: financial, education, relationships with adults, homelessness, high-risk behaviors, and health insurance access. The data revealed that 28% of those youth were either: employed full or part-time, received job training, social security, educational assistance, or other social supports.
Additionally, 93% of the youth reported participation in educational programming, 93% denoted having a healthy relationship with at least one adult, 16 % reported being homeless at some point, 27% replied having a referral for substance abuse counseling, 35% indicated being incarcerated at some time, 7% reported an unplanned pregnancy or fatherhood, and 81% reported having Medicare coverage.
These figures do not evoke a brilliant future for those departing foster care. For this reason, social workers have become innovators by melding technology and research into mobile applications, websites, and video games that meet the needs of foster care youth. Some of the promising technology available are as follows:
- Bay Area Legal Aid partners with the Youth Law Center and the Public Interest Law Project to provide trainings in foster care benefits and advocates for foster care youth.
- Beyond ‘Aging Out’: An MMOG for Foster Care Youth is a gaming platform and support network for foster care youth.
- Foster Care to Success (FC2S) has influenced public policy, volunteer initiatives, and programs for older foster youth.
- Foster Club is an online resource providing peer support and information for current and former foster youth.
- Focus on Foster Families is a mobile app providing video interviews with foster youth and caregivers sharing experiences, and expert legal, education, and child welfare advice.
- iFoster is an online community offering resources, technology, tutoring, eyeglasses, job opportunities, and a digital locker for foster youth to secure personal information.
- Kids Help Phone is a Canadian-based website providing 24/7 counselling and information services for children and youth.
- KnowB4UGo is a mobile application connecting foster youth with people, places and programs that support the aging out process.
- National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Mobile App (NFCAD) provides search information, including location and key contacts, for organizations, groups, agencies, and experts across the child welfare profession
- Ratemyfosterhome.com is a mobile app designed to garner information about foster homes and foster care experiences in real-time.
- TeenParent.net is a website offering information, resources, and a blog to support foster youth who are expecting or parenting and their caregivers.
- Think of Us is an online platform to support foster youth, foster/adoptive parents, and social services.
- Pathos game is a puzzle and fantasy video game created by FixedUpdate. As the main character, Pan, explores new worlds and makes new friends, players experience some of the emotions of children in the foster care system. FixedUpdate hopes that Pan’s adventures will connect with people inside and outside of the foster care system. The game, Pathos, will be available on the iTunes Store and Google Play Store in 2016.
- Persistence Plus engages and motivates college students through a mobile platform that uses transformative behavioral interventions.
- Sortli is a mobile application that provides information, step-by-step guides and support. Sortli gives you 7 paths toward independence to include identity, relationships, a place to live, health, finances, education and employment, and living skills.
- Ventura County Foster Healthlink (FHL) is a new website and mobile application that provides foster parents and caregivers with health information about children in their care. The goal is for information to be shared electronically among the care team to better meet the needs of the children.
These are only a fraction of the technologies available to assist foster youth. Many people in the public and private sector are unaware that social work professionals are leading the way in the research and design of high tech for foster youth.
Social worker Ruby Guillen of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has developed the following apps: (1) an app to report and prevent child sex trafficking, (2) an anti-bullying app, (3) a foster care placement app, and (4) an app for risk assessment of neglect and child abuse. Guillen was inspired by her passion for technology and her experience as a social worker. Guillen and her colleagues developed these apps at two hackathons sponsored by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Although, the apps are not readily available, they foreshadow trends for the future social work practice.
Jay Miller, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, understands the gaps in support that exist in the child welfare system. Dr. Miller has asked for backing to create and assess a mobile app to support foster care youth in transition. This research is being conducted in the Lexington, Fayette County, Kentucky area.
He states that, “a foster kid will turn 18 and there’s some kind of expectation that they’ll be able to function in a way that other kids who are never in foster care don’t have the capacity to function or make big decisions at 18. We expect foster kids to do that.” He further adds that, “With child welfare in general and with foster care specifically, the problems that plague these systems they are community problems. It’s not just a someone problem. It’s an everyone problem” Miller suggests an ideological change in people’s perceptions about foster care. “We need to look at it as a service for people in need. It is a solution” . Dr. Miller’s work will continue to bring the barriers to success for foster youth to the forefront.
Innovative technology solutions have been developed to address systemic issues in the foster care system and to sustain foster care youth in general. These mobile apps, websites, and video games meet immediate needs allowing foster care youth to focus on future goals. There are a plethora of resources accessible to equip foster care youth in their transition into young adulthood.
By shifting the focus from data that exposes the many apertures of the current system to programs that produce confident and successful young adults, our outlook becomes much broader. Developing thoughtful products and tangible services for foster care youth can produce more positive outcomes.