A conversation with Serita Cox of iFoster on overcoming the digital divide between foster youth and their peers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Martin do Nascimento

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To Serita Cox, CEO and founder of iFoster, improving technological access for foster youth has long been a critical concern. The COVID-19 crisis only highlights the disparity in access to technology, as schools and universities transition to online learning, and in-person meetings between foster youth and support networks are no longer possible. Cox and her organization are working to bring more devices and online connections to thousands of foster youth around the country and piloting a first-in-the-country initiative to provide internet access to foster youth in California. We spoke with Serita about iFoster and the challenge of bridging such a deep digital divide. 

[The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

SOCIAL CARE STORIES: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to start iFoster?

SERITA COX: I, myself, am a former foster youth, but it’s not like I had a lifelong goal to do something for foster care. I actually come from the corporate world. I was vice president of strategy and business operations at 3Com Corp, and prior to that, I was a strategy consultant in corporate America. Then the dot com bust happened, so I decided, ‘Okay, screw this. I’m going to do something that has a little bit more meaning.’ 

If you think about child welfare, there are a lot of little islands made up of individual families or kids. By design, the islands aren’t connected in order to protect the privacy of the kids. But if that’s the case, how can you ever get them what they need, when they need it, and do it at scale? 

That was the idea behind iFoster. Coming from the tech industry, I knew that the internet is really good at aggregating people into a virtual community, and I knew that a virtual community can be made safe and private. And if you can bring them together in a virtual community, then you can serve them at scale. 

We knew that every foster parent/child/agency would have loved to have a deal on phones for communication, but we also knew that AT&T was not going to cut deals with hundreds of thousands of people. With iFoster, I can go to AT&T and say, “I have more members than Boeing has employees. You should give me the same discount that you give Boeing.”

SCS:  Can you tell me what the digital divide between foster youth and their peers looks like?

SC: One of iFoster’s first programs was the 1 Laptop Program. We started by providing refurbished computers, and a partnership with Microsoft provided free software. We found that demand for the program was huge. 

Based on that demand, in 2016 we asked the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work to do a survey for us around technological access for foster youth, and it turned out that in California, only 21 percent of foster youth in urban areas had regular access to a computer or the internet in their homes. Then, if you looked at rural areas, it was even worse. It was 4 percent. That’s compared to low-income kids who are not foster youth, who are at 79 percent.

Even before COVID-19, that translates into a lot of issues: foster youth who can’t keep up with school work because so much of that work is online, or extra difficulty applying for a job, or for government benefits, if they’re only available online.

SCS: What were you doing in terms of addressing those issues prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

SC: I mentioned one of our first programs with Microsoft, the 1 Laptop Program. Eventually, we were able to move to new laptops, and we actually had our own laptop designed. It’s got 11 hours of battery life, and it comes with Microsoft Windows and Office installed. We can deliver it directly to foster youth for $350. And it’s semi-rugged, so you can actually drop it and it won’t break because you can see it’s got more protection around the screen. We’ve provided almost 10,000 laptops across the country with a variety of funders: philanthropies, agencies, states, counties, municipalities, etc.

We had the evaluation done on that program that’s where USC came in and it showed not only that it improved grades, but it reduced missed school days, improved the likelihood of applying to college and persisting in college, and it improved the ability to apply to jobs. Social connections, both the quality and quantity, were improved between foster children and their biological families, as well as their support network. Overall life satisfaction improved, depression decreased, and suicidality decreased.

To be honest, those results shocked me. I was like, “it’s just a computer.” But then you read the comments from the study, and the youth talk about how they feel like everybody else now, how they feel like they can manage their own lives, how they can go online and find what they need they’ve got more control. Then you start realizing, ‘Oh, my God, they were so cut out of our society, which is so dependent on technology.’

SCS: From what I understand, cell phones have played a major role in your response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Is that right?

SC: At the same time we’ve been working on the laptops, we’ve also been working with the State of California and with Lifeline, the federal program that provides people with a phone for free if they can’t afford one. 

A few years ago, Lifeline moved from landlines to mobile. iFoster was a vocal advocate in California, arguing that our foster youth should have access to the new mobile devices because we knew it was a big issue. Eventually things came to a head, and they came to us and said, “Okay. Let’s do a pilot program with foster youth.” 

We were put in charge of designing the pilot program, so we said we needed smart phones with unlimited voice, text, high-speed data, and the ability to function as a hotspot. We had only just launched at the end of November 2019. It was luck that we had everything in place when this pandemic struck.

It’s the only program like it in the country and I can tell you that other states are crying for it right now. 

The motorola smartphone distributed by iFoster through the Lifeline pilot program.
The Motorola smartphone distributed by iFoster through the Lifeline pilot program. [Photo courtesy of iFoster]

SCS: Will you tell me what need the current pandemic has created for foster youth and youth aging out of foster care and how you’ve been able to respond to that?

SC: So, the first and principal need, across the board, is the ability to communicate.

Before the pandemic, what was happening in child welfare was that social workers would meet in person with their youth or children, always in a public place. Visitations happened in person, always in a public place. Youth went to see their therapists in person, and for some of our kids who have severe trauma, that happens several times a week. Going to court, meeting with your attorney all of those meetings happened in-person and in public spaces.

And starting March 19th, the day the first shelter-in-place orders were issued, all of that ceased in those places. So, now you have kids isolated wherever their placement is. It could be a foster family. It could be a group home. It could be transitional housing. It could be a shelter. They’re now isolated in that place. They don’t have a way to communicate. But what if that’s not a good place?

Another issue is that they don’t have a way to do the things that were routine for them seeing their social worker, seeing their family, seeing their siblings it’s all gone overnight, and nobody is really able to explain to them if they’re ever going to be able to return to their normal routines. 

Can you imagine if you’re six or seven years old — how freaked out would you be, even if you had the best foster parents in the entire universe? There is no way to explain to that child why they can’t see mommy and daddy or their siblings?

Then there’s the education side. At the K-12 level, it’s just chaotic. They said, ‘We’re gonna take an extended spring break,’ and then, ‘We might have online school, but it’s not mandatory.’ We still don’t know what’s going to happen in most places, but we know that students who can’t make their classes aren’t going to fail out of school.

At the college level, that’s not the case. Unlike public K-12, colleges could just say they were moving online and, if you’re someone who can’t get online, that’s too bad and you’re gonna fail your semester. So that’s why our response has been ruthlessly focused on college students.

We estimate that the need in California for phones could be as high as 40,000. We haven’t come close to meeting that yet, but we can get through applications for about 350 to 400 smartphones a day and about 250 to 300 laptops. 

So far, we have almost 5,000 phones in the field in California, so our idea now is let’s start communicating. The next step in the plan is to start surveying our youth, and the first question we’re going to ask is, ‘What do you need?’ so that we can start working on those issues.