Thursday, July 27, 2006

Deleting Siblings of Foster Children Act

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott recently spoke before Congress on behalf of the Deleting Online Predators Act, which would bar schools and libraries from providing online access to social networking sites. As Abbott explained it, the benefits would far outweigh the minimal costs to frivolous teens:

While social networking sites are a lot of fun for kids – and have the potential to expose our children to a world of knowledge and bring them literally worldwide friends – many of the sites also subject children to a world of predators, pedophiles and pornographers.

Yet in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, there was a story about desperate foster children communicating through MySpace to maintain tenuous family ties, which would seem to indicate that there is a lot more than "fun" at stake for low-income teens.

This story on "Fostering Family Ties at 20," which appeared in the print edition as "Struggling to Pull Shattered Family Together," describes how young Trayvon Walker keeps in touch with his dispersed and traumatized family members via a popular social networking site.

Inside his sparse Van Nuys apartment, Trayvon Walker clicks on a photo of a 17-year-old boy with chin raised, cheeks stretched and a full mouth strikingly similar to his.

"That's my brother," says Walker of the teenager he worries about so much lately.

He clicks on a different page and scrolls through photos of his 16-year-old sister, wondering if she has a boyfriend.

At 20, Walker is trying to click together the scattered lives of his brothers and sisters. Raised by the foster care system in California — in which 42% of children are separated from one or more of their siblings — Walker knows only pieces of their stories. Five of his seven siblings remain in foster care in Victorville, Hesperia, Pomona and Ontario, and only two live together. One sister is autistic. One brother is about to turn 13. The 17-year-old in the online photo is getting ready to emancipate from foster care. Of his two older brothers, one is in jail and he can't find the other.

Walker wants the court or social workers to provide flexible visitation rights and transportation, so he can give his siblings still in foster care the parental figure that he never had.

He says it is up to him to pass on vital lessons in adulthood to his younger siblings, even though he lives 50 to 100 miles away. They are lessons every young adult should know but which those who grow up in foster care often learn the hard way: Don't buy more groceries than you can carry on the bus. Call potential employers to follow up on job applications, even if they didn't call you. Count school credits to make sure you've earned enough to graduate on time.

Why do legislators keep assuming that those in the poorest segment of the population only use the Internet for play, when every indicator on the status of the "Digital Divide" shows that more and more of society's most disenfranchised citizens depend on their Internet access, particularly without reliable public transportation or a social safety net? Cutting off schools and libraries from broadly defined "social networking" sites, which even includes some outreach pages of museums and cultural centers, certainly doesn't serve the greater good.



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