Back to the Future: Challenges to the Usage of Transportation Technology by Foster Youth

By Emily Kortright & Lucy Johnston-Walsh*


Children and young adults who are involved with the foster care system face multiple barriers to transportation, particularly in remote areas of the country with limited public transport options.  Recent changes in federal and state laws now allow children to remain in foster care beyond age 18 up to age 21, with a goal of providing these young adults with the opportunity to develop independent living skills.  As a greater number of older youth may choose to remain involved with foster care, there will be increasing demands for transportation to places of work and education.  Youth residing in suburban or rural areas have unique challenges due to lack of public transportation. Unfortunately, foster youth frequently experience many legal challenges in obtaining their drivers’ licenses, purchasing a car and obtaining insurance.  Foster care provider organizations (both governmental and private) often express fears of liability related to allowing a foster youth to drive.  

New and emerging forms of transportation may provide potential solutions, but – as always – with advancements in technology come challenges in implementation. Just as mass transit is unavailable, micromobility is largely inaccessible for foster youth in remote locations. Bikes, scooters, and other means of bike-lane-occupying transit have provided cost-effective, footprint reducing options for residents of cities around the world. However, micromobility options are often impractical to implement in suburban and rural locations where most trips are more than a few miles. Micromobility for foster children in urban areas presents its own slew of concerns such as risk of accidents and injuries, lack of supervision, and determination of appropriate age of usage.

Ridesharing apps have become some of the most pervasive and visible technological advancements in mobility; however, combined with the lack of available cars in non-urban areas, they do not provide the advantages to foster children that they do to the general population. Many foster children do not even have access to smart phones and cellular data. Also, Uber and Lyft drivers cannot be properly vetted to ensure the safety of the children, and often have restrictions related to unaccompanied minors. State laws and policies place appropriate safety restrictions on who may transport foster youth, and often the list includes only caseworkers, biological parents and/or foster parents, or residential facility staff. Unless special permission is given by the court or parents, it would be challenging to approve any rideshare driver.  Moreover, waiting for a rideshare driver to become available and arrive could be problematic for youth who have time commitments relating to jobs or appointments.

Companies such as HopSkipDrive, Kango, VanGo and Zum seek to provide ridesharing services to children in a safe manner, vetting drivers through extensive interviews, background checks, and certification processes, and implementing real-time monitoring systems. Los Angeles-based HopSkipDrive, has even focused its outreach on foster youth, expanding to Las Vegas and partnering with Clark County Child Welfare Services. However, these services are not widespread, often require scheduling in advance, and the extensive vetting process for drivers means that the cost of each ride tends to be even higher than most ridesharing apps. Even extensive security measures cannot completely shield children from the risks of assault and kidnapping that ridesharing apps present. In February of 2020, HopSkipDrive was suspended in Las Vegas when a driver was charged with unlawful contact with a minor and luring a child, despite having an approved criminal record and background check.

According to a new report, 1 in 10 vehicles will be fully automated by 2030, with robo-taxis comprising a significant portion of the market. While contracts with agencies that provide robo-taxi services could provide a convenient solution for foster youth, the possibility of fully automated vehicles means that even semi-autonomous cars will still require some manner of control by a human driver. This presents similar challenges as ridesharing. Furthermore, the newness of the technology will likely mean higher costs, accessibility that is limited to cities and wealthier areas, higher risks, and lower public trust – all crucial factors that the foster care system considers when dealing with the transportation of youth.

Even if the aforementioned options were easily accessible to foster youth, all of them could prove to be cost-prohibitive. Child welfare agencies operate on strict budgets, allocating money only for necessities. Foster parents are also likely on tight budgets and may have a hard time justifying the expense of transportation technology. Even if a child has access to a smart phone to order an Uber, he or she most likely does not have the money to spare. Children in urban areas may have access to micromobility, but if they do not have the money to pay for it, it is of little use. Children in suburban or rural areas may find the cost prohibits them from even owning a bike or scooter. If such technology is deemed necessary, various bureaucratic hoops remain when deciding who will pay for such expenses.

Despite these safety and budgetary considerations, technology should still be harnessed to address many of the transportation barriers that foster youth face. Technology must be adapted to better suit the unique situations of the foster youth population.  For instance, individuals with connections to child protection services (i.e. caseworkers, foster parents, Court Appointed Special Advocates, etc.) could volunteer to act as on-call drivers, providing rides to youth in the foster care system. Safety concerns could be limited by keeping drivers within the pool of individuals who have already been approved. For older youth and those in less rural areas, micromobility programs could be created specifically for foster children, in which scooters and bikes could be donated or purchased specifically for their usage. Additionally, as a far-out solution, contracts between counties and fully automated vehicles could prove to be the ultimate solution once the technology has become more pervasive and affordable. It must not be taken for granted that technology automatically benefits all populations and individuals equally; the unique challenges of foster youth mean that we must provide them with unique solutions.

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* Lucy Johnston-Walsh is a Clinical Professor and Director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Penn State Dickinson Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Emily Kortright is a certified legal intern in the Children’s Advocacy Clinic and JD candidate. The Children’s Advocacy Clinic is an experiential learning program for law students. The Clinic receives court appointments to represent children who are involved with the foster care system. Many clinic clients have been negatively impacted by transportation barrriers.

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