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Youth in California detention centers, like juvenile hall, are not guaranteed access to technology. Even in the foster care system, there is nothing in writing that gives youth rights to access technology of any kind.
California Assembly Bill 811, which was introduced by state Assemblymember Mike Gipson earlier this year, aims to change that.
The bill would help ensure that youth in out-of-home placements, including the juvenile justice and foster care systems, would have “reasonable access to technology.” Bill 811 is being set to be voted on the Senate floor this September and is being backed by Facebook and the Youth Law Center.
Youth Radio’s Natalie Bettendorf spoke to Lucy Carter, the policy advocate for the Youth Law Center, about what it would mean for youth to have “reasonable access” to the Internet.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Natalie Bettendorf, Youth Radio: What is the current policy for accessing technology in youth detention facilities and youth in the foster care system?
Lucy Carter: Well, there aren’t formal policies in place. So it’s very site-specific and family-placement-specific. So, for example, one foster youth might have ongoing access to [the] Internet in their family but another foster youth who is in a group home might not have any access to the Internet when they are home, making it very difficult for them to do their homework and get their homework assignments. So if you’re in a group home that doesn’t have a computer with Internet access then you have to go to a library or not get your homework done.
NB: There’s definitely a stigma with adolescents and screen usage. What do you say to people who push back on the idea that Internet access is a basic right?
LC: It’s just fundamental to how we live in today’s society. If we don’t help young people learn technology skills, we are not preparing them to be in the world of work. I mean, we use technology every day in our work lives, and if they do not have those skills then they are behind. They already face challenges in being able to have good educational outcomes and to have good careers and to thrive, and the last thing we want to do is take [access to technology] away too. We need them to have the opportunities to learn the technology skills they need to have to survive in today’s work world.
NB: What does “reasonable internet access” mean?
LC: So “reasonable” is left up to the caregiver to determine. So for example a grandparent who’s caring for a grandchild in foster care might not have the means because they’re living on Social Security to buy the latest technology for their grandchild. Reasonable access to technology in that case might mean going to the library twice a week so that their grandchild can get online and get homework assignments completed. Another example would be in the juvenile justice setting with youth who are detained. We aren’t saying that they should be able to communicate with everybody. We are saying that they need to have monitored communications to maintain healthy connections, but we’ll leave that up to probation to determine for each youth.
NB: What’s the financial feasibility of this bill, and how is the state going to fund an increase in access to technology?
LC: We know that there are ways to do this cheaply. The technology is not that complicated. San Diego County’s juvenile hall is using Skype as a way for the young people who are detained to have online visits with their parents. It’s not expensive technology to access. A lot of the court schools have laptops already, but they’re only being used in limited ways and they’re not being used to maintain connections with family. They’re used in very limited educational ways, which isn’t good [use of the resource]. So in some cases they have the technology already in the building, they’re just not using it as they could be.
NB: What are some of the stories you’ve heard from youth that stress the importance of this bill?
LC: So some young people say, “I lived with a family where I had a lot of access and it really made a difference because I could seek online resources myself and I could think about registering at the community college and doing classes online.” And then you hear young people in group homes who said, “I had to sneak out to try to get to the library to find out what my homework assignment was because there was no Internet access at the group home.” Some of the group home facilities may have one computer, and the young people may or may not have very much access to it. It may be a couple of hours a day and if you’ve got a lot of youth in that facility that’s really not reasonable.