Possibly one of the few things more challenging than being a teenage parent is being a teenage parent in foster care. While the adverse effects of teen pregnancy have been well studied, researchers and social service providers are only recently coming to terms with the growing epidemic of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care.
According to a 2009 Chapin Hall Study adolescents in foster care are at a significantly higher risk for pregnancy than the general adolescent population:
- At ages 17 and 18, one-third or 33% of young women in foster care were pregnant or parenting
- By age 19, more than half, or 51 % of young women currently or formerly in foster care were pregnant or parenting, and nearly half of those young women had more than one child
- 60% of 21-year-old former foster males report impregnating a female partner as compared to 28 % of the general population
To be clear, foster youth are children who have been removed from their families and are in the legal custody of the state. Another way to think of this is, the government is their parents. If that is the reality, then foster youth are basically “our children” and we are doing a pretty shabby job at being their parents.
What is possibly even more troubling than a 50% pregnancy rate is the experiences of these young parents while in foster care:
- 1 in 5 pregnant teens in foster care received NO prenatal care
- 22% of teen foster care mothers were investigated for child maltreatment
(this is way above the 12% of teenage parents in general)
- 11% of teen foster care mothers had their children removed from their custody
- 44% of foster care mothers graduated from high school; 27% for parenting foster fathers
- Having a child while in foster care was the largest predictor of homelessness after exiting care
Teen pregnancy and parenting are only one of the indicators of poor foster care outcomes. Very few programs and policies address the needs of pregnant and parenting youth in foster care or work to prevent initial or repeat pregnancy. Other critical foster care outcomes include a significant increase in the risk of homelessness, incarceration, poor educational attainment, and poverty for foster youth ages 14-18. But there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that the children of foster youth are at-risk for entering foster care while their parents are still in foster care.
Though I am in no way suggesting that the U.S. do away with child protective services or foster care, circumstances such as these do beg the question, “Is the government any better at being a parent than the very caregivers these children are removed from?” This is a scary question to ask, but one that social workers must constantly be appraising. The answer is not “no” but it is not a resounding “yes” either.
By definition, children in foster care come into care from troubled circumstances, putting them at greater risk for a number of poor outcomes. But we must make a guarantee to these children that the new environments we provide for them will make them better off than the environments we took them from. We must transition child welfare into a place where safety and permanency are not our only goals. Well-being and a better future are essential.
As a child welfare systems change analyst, I applaud the tireless work of child welfare workers and administrations and recognize it is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs to do. There are so many forces beyond our control and endless administrative hurdles to overcome. But we must still do better. We have to do better or what is the point of the entire system?
References & Resources:
Boonstra, H.D. (2011). Teen pregnancy among young women in foster care: A primer. Guttermacher Policy Review, 14 (11) pp.8-19.
Center for the Study of Social Policy: Pregnant and Parenting Youth in Foster Care
Children’s Bureau, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families. The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY 2012 as of July 2013.
Children’s Defense Fund. (2010). Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act Summary.