By Jeremy Loudenback, ChronicleOfSocialChange.org
As Los Angeles County mulls the idea of using ride-sharing services to escort foster youth to visitations with biological parents, some child-welfare experts wonder how such a service would be able to grapple with children with significant experiences of trauma and loss.
Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors members Sheila Kuehl and Mike Antonovich submitted a motion last week calling for improved family visitation, including the idea of exploring whether ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft or HopSkipDrive could transport children and family members to important family visits.
Children in the county’s foster-care system remain spread out across the vast geographical expanse of Los Angeles County. Trips to court, meetings with social workers or visitations with parents or other family members can take hours in some cases, given distances between parts of the county or traffic conditions.
However, experts suggest that the time foster youth spend shuttling between appointments should be considered more than just a long car ride. Instead, they say, time spent in a ride-share or other transportation could be an opportunity to create a trauma-informed system of care for youth in foster care, an idea that has drawn a response from several ride-sharing companies.
Wendy Smith, an associate dean and clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, said most children in the child-welfare system have experienced some kind of traumatic event or chronic experiences of trauma prior to being placed in out-of-home care, not to mention the traumatic process of being taken away from the familiarity of home and thrust into the system.
When these children arrive at visits with their parents, they are dealing with a complex set of emotions.
“It’s not like taking a child to a gymnastics class,” Smith said. “The moment of meeting with the parent is going to be powerful, followed by separation. These are powerful experiences, especially for children who have just entered care. These are the kinds of issues that people who are providing transportation would need to know something about.”
If L.A. moves forward in using ride-share companies to offer rides to foster youth, Smith hopes that the county could make sure the services and drivers are taking into account the histories of trauma that most foster youth carry with them.
“If we develop some type of pilot project, these people need training,” Smith said. “For people who are driving, it’s not like they’ll have to do therapy or have right words to say, but it will help them to know who the person they’re carrying might be, to be tender or gentle, or remember that this is someone who is going through a powerful meeting with their parent.”
Ride-sharing behemoths Uber and Lyft do not allow youth under the age of 18 to ride unaccompanied by an adult.
Tracey Breeden, a representative from Uber, says that in the event of an emergency, the company encourages drivers to contact 911.
“Our platform should not be viewed as a substitute for trained medical and emergency response professionals,” Breeden said in an email sent to The Chronicle of Social Change.
Currently, a handful of ride-share companies offer services aimed at children. Los Angeles-based HopSkipDrive, Kango and Zum all offer rides aimed at ferrying unaccompanied children to school and other appointments without a parent in the car.
Kango founder Sara Schaer says that because the company offers both childcare and transportation services, it has more stringent standards for its drivers than companies like Uber or Lyft.
All Kango drivers must have some prior experience in childcare, whether in a professional capacity as a teacher, counselor or a graduate student in child development, or as a parent.
In addition, employees must also pass two levels of background checks that include a check of criminal records, the sex offender registry and Department of Motor Vehicles records. All drivers with the Bay Area-based Kango must also pass through California’s TrustLine registry, a resource that many parents in the state use to vet childcare providers and other caregivers.
When it comes to driving unaccompanied minors who are dealing with trauma, Schaer says she believes that the county should balance the needs of the youth with safety concerns.
“If there’s a possibility that there might be a situation that requires a specific professional intervention, I think there should be someone else there in the vehicle or else the driver should have training corresponding to that,” she said. “It all depends on the type of situation, but you wouldn’t want that driver to be unprepared for the road.”
In Los Angeles County, where it can sometimes take a couple hours to get to Antelope Valley from parts of South Los Angeles, the time spent in a car could be an opportunity to help foster youth heal, according to USC Professor Smith.
“It’s well known that after visitation, kids in foster care are disrupted,” Smith said. “That doesn’t wait until you get home. Even for a momentary encounter like this, we might not know if it’s making a difference, but it can.”
Jeremy Loudenback is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. You can find him on Twitter here.