Eckerd Kids: Teens in group foster homes must be allowed to keep phones
For many teens still reeling from being taken into foster care, a cellphone is a lifeline, child advocates say.
It’s their one connection to the world they left behind, a link to friends, romantic interests and reassuring emojis.
Yet many group foster homes confiscate or heavily restrict access to cellphones. In some cases, it is to prevent unauthorized contact by their parents, but it is also to protect the privacy of other foster children.
That is set to change in January when Eckerd Kids, the agency that runs child welfare in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, will require that group foster homes allow teens to keep their cellphones.
The move comes after the agency encountered teens who balked at going to homes that restricted their cellphone use.
“To increase normalcy amongst foster children in Tampa Bay, Eckerd Kids is requiring that all contracted group home providers develop and implement a policy on allowing cell phone usage by youth in their programs,” said spokeswoman Adrienne Drew in a statement.
But some group home providers have concerns.
At the county-owned Lake Magdalene group home in Carrollwood, the cellphones of newly arrived children are taken and stored in an administration office with other personal belongings. Then they are checked for profanity, drug references and inappropriate digital images.
JoAnn Rollins, director of Hillsborough County Children’s Services, said foster homes share regular parents’ cellphone concerns such as “sexting” and cyber-bullying. On top of that, they often cater to teens who have run away or been exploited by adults. There is a risk children would use their cellphones to let “unsavory” characters know where they are staying or to post pictures of other foster children on social media, she said.
“We’re not saying no phones,” Rollins said. “We’re just asking that we’re allowed to protect the privacy and identity of the youth that we serve.”
Children at Lake Magdalene who have a specific need for a cellphone, such as for school, work or court-ordered communication with a relative, get their phones returned. Other children may be approved to use their phones by their case managers or therapists. Typically, children would sign out a phone from an administration office when they leave the group home and hand it back over on their return.
Landlines are also available for children who do not have a cellphone. The home maintains a list of approved contacts.
Rollins plans to meet with Eckerd Kids to discuss whether Lake Magdalene’s policy complies with the new directive.
“We want to make sure the children’s whereabouts are not being compromised and pictures of youths are not being taken who have not given permission,” she said.
The Children’s Home Network, which runs a 66-bed foster home on Memorial Highway, also grants cellphone access on a case-by case basis, president and CEO Irene Rickus said in an email.
“At CHN we strive to maintain normalcy to the greatest degree possible, while balancing safety and social connectedness,” she said.
Concerns about electronic devices were heightened in January after a 14-year-old girl made international news when she live-streamed her suicide on Facebook from a private foster home in Miami.
The state, which licenses group homes, is silent on how cellphones should be regulated. But it does require “normalcy” for foster children.
“Today, most kids have cell phones and they should too,” said Ralph Stoddard, a Hillsborough County circuit judge who heard child dependency cases for six years.
Few, if any, best practices have been established to give guidance to child welfare agencies, said Adam Pertman, president and CEO of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency.
“I think there can be genuine benefits, but there have to be enforced rules and regulations to minimize potential misuse,” Pertman said.
Group homes that allow children to keep phones usually enforce a raft of conditions.
Children are required to turn off phones at lights-out times and not to lend them to other children. Taking pictures of other children or helping them to contact others is also prohibited. Those policies apply to any device that provides unrestricted access to the Internet.
Eckerd Kids’ new policy is supported by Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.
Older kids in foster care often move from home to home until they are reunified or get a permanent placement. Without cellphones, they will lose contact with friends and feel more isolated, said Christina Spudeas, the organization’s executive director.
There is a need for close supervision, she said, but phones also give foster children a way to call for help when needed.
“It’s important because it puts them in the same place as every other kid in our society,” Spudeas said. “It makes them feel normal.”
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.