Advocating for Kids in the Digital Age

Mar 14 2019

teens with cellphone

by Ashika Sethi

With South by Southwest in full swing, this March we’re bringing you stories about digital innovation and how it plays a role in the child welfare system and in the lives of the kids we serve.

It’s hard to keep up with kids these days, especially when it comes to technology. The digital age is definitely changing the scope of our advocacy for children in foster care.

Earlier this month, on our Volunteer Advocates Facebook group, one CASA volunteer shared an experience she recently had with the teen she serves.

“My kid, a 7th grader, is going through some tough placement transitions. I was chatting with her and wanted her to know I was there for her and that she could call me if she needed something. Her eyes softened and then turned down as she said, ‘I don’t have a phone to call you with though.’”

Navigating the digital world with a child is hard for any parent or guardian. There are no set-in-stone rules, no guidebooks for dictating when a child can and can’t have a smartphone or when it’s okay for them to have unlimited internet access.

Navigating the digital world with a child who’s in the foster care system has its own added challenges. And oftentimes, our advocacy changes on a case-by-case basis.

Take, for instance, a child we serve who wasn’t allowed back at their school because they violated their cell phone policy, who now needs additional educational advocacy on their behalf to stay caught up. Or the fact that a teenage girl may be at a higher risk of being a sex trafficking victim if she had access to a phone because it would be easier to be contacted by perpetrators online.

Yet on the other hand there is a teen who ran away whose cell phone was the only means of contact CASA had with her. There is another teen who lives out of state but can Skype her CASA volunteer to chat as often as she wants. There is also a child who was allowed access to an iPod to use for music therapy to help him cope with trauma he experienced in early childhood.

“The benefits [of kids in care using technology] outweigh the risks in most cases,” says Anitra Edwards, Teen Advocacy Specialist.

Reality is, most kids’ and teens’ lives include considerable time spent in front of screens. For a kid involved in the child welfare system, not being able to access digital devices can put them at a disadvantage, both educationally and socially, and can make them feel out of place among their peers.

“Kids in foster care shouldn’t be treated differently than other kids, but too often we treat them as though they’ve done something wrong,” says Emily LeBlanc, Chief Program Officer. “We should do whatever we can to make sure they have access to things other kids have access to, be it music lessons, camp or technology.”

There are many benefits for using technology when it comes to education. Oftentimes, CASA can advocate for our teens to have access to resources like laptops and tablets to benefit them in a classroom setting. Online schooling is an option for teens who aren’t able to receive an in-person education. We’ve even advocated for teens who are about to age out of foster care to have a cell phone so they can find employment easier.

Digital devices are also a fantastic tool for volunteer advocates to keep in touch with kids.

“I’ve seen the nature of how we communicate with the kids we serve change vastly over the past few years working at CASA,” says Alejandro Victoria, Director of Volunteer Admissions and former Advocacy Program Manager on the TAPP team. “From Skype to email to texting, it’s now so much easier to talk with our kids, especially the ones who are in homes outside of Texas.”

As for the 7th grader who didn’t have access to a phone to call her advocate, the rules for a child in care having access to a cell phone and other electronic devices are usually up to the caregivers. If CASA feels it’s appropriate for a child to have a phone, there are many options available for volunteers and their supervisors to help make that possible such as asking organizations like Foster Angels to help purchase a phone or digital device for a child in care.

In all cases, we strongly recommend volunteers talk to their CASA supervisors to find the best solution that’s tailored to each child’s specific needs and to always stress safety online when talking to kids in care.

“It’s important to talk with teens in care about cyber-safety,” says Alejandro.

For conversations regarding cyber-safety, Alejandro recommends chatting with teens and kids often. He also recommends volunteers be aware of the up-and-coming apps and devices that kids are using so that they can be on the forefront of the conversation and keep an eye out for any concerning signs.

When children encounter technology, the world opens up. They are exposed to both the good and the bad of humanity, all at their fingertips. For kids in foster care, we need to be aware of how this exposure can potentially put them in a dangerous situation. We need to talk with them and teach them how to safely use the technology that’s all around them. And when appropriate, we need to find ways for kids to be able to use the technology to their advantage.

“Like it or not, technology is part of the world and the future,” says Emily. “If we limit kids’ access, we may further stunt their development in relation to peers and that is not in their best interest. We have to consider safety above all, but we also need to consider education and development.”

Advocating for kids in the digital age is a vast and complex topic, but one that must be addressed in order to make sure that children in foster care are safe—both on and offline.