What's Possible

The High-Tech Way Foster Youth Are Safeguarding Their Records (And Their Memories, Too)

February 16, 2017
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The High-Tech Way Foster Youth Are Safeguarding Their Records (And Their Memories, Too)
Former foster kids Mike Williams (left) and Thomas Fair advised the team behind My JumpVault and helped code the app. Courtesy of Mike Williams and Thomas Fair
Kids in foster care move around a lot, but their papers don’t always move with them. That’s where My JumpVault, a virtual locker for all of life’s important documents, comes in.

Florida’s child welfare system shuttled Jay Schad to a new home every of couple months — roughly 25 placements in all. (He lost the exact count.) The most disruptive move sent him to a group home in Tallahassee, two hours east of Panama City, his hometown, and plopped him into a new high school. Already a month behind his classmates, the freshman attempted to make friends by trying out for the football team. But with many of his records back in Panama City, including his latest physical exam, the coaches couldn’t let him take the field. Eventually, Schad got the go-ahead from a local doctor and started playing. But the setback made him feel, as he says, “let down by the system.” Hadn’t the 14-year-old been through enough with his mother’s meth addiction, his father’s violence and dozens of destabilizing moves to have to worry about his personal papers?

Record-keeping, a seemingly bureaucratic task, poses a huge challenge for the nation’s 428,000 foster youth. Already struggling to keep up with their peers, these adolescents might not realize the need to preserve their important documents until it’s too late. Even if a diligent social worker does compile a binder, it might be lost in a hectic move, and in some states, there are extra hurdles for a teen who’s aged out of the system. This means most applications — whether for financial aid, a new job or housing — can be stymied simply because documents are missing.

Cloud-based technology, however, might have an answer for these teens. My JumpVault, a virtual storage locker, allows a foster kid to upload and protect their essential files, like a birth certificate, medical history and school transcripts. Developed by Five Points Technology Group (FPTG), a business headquartered in the Tampa suburb of Bradenton, Fla., and funded by the state, My JumpVault currently has about 7,000 users. The digital records it holds, maintained securely behind several layers of authentication, won’t disappear like hard copies might.

Former foster youth played a large role in building My JumpVault. In 2009, two 19-year-old former foster kids led a statewide campaign to streamline access to Florida’s child welfare records. (Previously, emancipated youth needed a judge’s order to see their case file.) After successfully pushing a bill through the legislature, they started to question what access truly meant. Even though they’d won the legal right to look at their papers, did adolescents truly have access if the process of obtaining a copy was so difficult? That’s when the young men — Thomas Fair, now a member of the design team, and Mike Williams, an assistant product manager — signed on with FPTG to advise the team behind My JumpVault and help code the nascent app.

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Accessible by desktop or smartphone, an email address is all a teen needs to sign up for the service. Once they’ve locked the account with a password, they might log in to scan an important document they’ve just received or to locate an image, like Schad did eight months ago when applying for a waiter job at a restaurant. He’d misplaced his social security card, and his new manager told him he couldn’t clock in until he found it. Schad pulled up his electronic copy, and luckily, the boss accepted it.

To further ease the process, a couple of agencies recently partnered with FPTG to store files directly on My JumpVault’s servers. For example, Sunshine Health, the state’s Medicaid provider, lists a kid’s prior hospital visits and prescription medications. Soon, My JumpVault could integrate with the court system to track hearing dates and with local schools to keep report cards. “Tactically, it frees caseworkers up from having to provide documents over and over again in hard copy, and it puts youth in a better position for independence,” notes Chris Pantaleon, the company’s business development director.

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In addition to vital records, one of My JumpVault’s unique features provides storage space for memories. Because foster children might have only one or two pictures of their birth parents, storing photos is the best way to preserve a sense of self. Without these keepsakes, “You don’t understand who you are,” says Williams, who knows the feeling firsthand. “It’s like having no identity.” That’s why they encourage users to add pictures, certificates and awards. Even if a foster kid is relocated to another home, one whose walls might be covered with family portraits, he can take comfort in his own background and family roots, too.

Another powerful feature, which Fair pushed to include within the app, is a series of guides to help foster youth navigate difficult situations. These worksheets might list the names of all service providers in a metro area, provide instructions on applying for food stamps or explain the types of questions employers ask in an interview.

Schad knows there are plenty of issues still plaguing the foster care system. But at least with My JumpVault’s storage in the cloud, those kids don’t have to worry about whether paperwork might hold them back.

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This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

 

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