Teens In Care: Pregnancies Reach Epidemic Proportions

“Forty-eight percent of foster teens who age out become pregnant by age 19.” -- Department of Job and Family Services.

“Girls in foster care are 600 percent more likely than the general population to become pregnant before the age of 21.” -- Arrow Child and Family Ministries.

“Young women living in foster care are more than twice as likely to become pregnant than those not in foster care.” -- Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

These are alarming statistics. How do we come to have a national foster care system that delivers such miserable results? There is no one answer to this ongoing, complex crisis, but we can start with a related foster child disaster in education.

Although foster care is meant as a temporary solution, foster teens find it difficult, if not impossible, to make their way into a stable home, leaving them without anyone or anywhere to turn to for answers. Until a teenager graduates from high school, their education about life is mostly based on what they learn in school, supplemented by what they learn from their family, friends and the Internet. Many of us take it for granted that every child will go to kindergarten, then move through the school system until they graduate high school, spending one year in each grade.

Sadly, the foster care system puts many detours in place that prevent tens of thousands of foster teens from ever graduating from high school. In 2014, the Colorado Department of Education and Department of Human Services revealed that less than 28% percent of foster teens graduated on time, compared with 77% of all students. Even about half of homeless students managed to graduate with their class, nearly double the number of graduating foster youths. What is going on?

One of the biggest challenges to foster teens getting a basic education and graduating on time is that on average, these kids move to a new foster home every six months. On the other hand, there are thousands of cases against foster care agencies and their respective state government, including class action lawsuits, where children were moved many times over. CASA of McKean County reported on one foster child who bounced through more than 35 homes from the time the girl entered foster care at age 2 until she was adopted seven years later. Do the math: for seven years, this foster child was moved on average every 73 days!

In addition to feelings of instability and stress in foster children, this ongoing movement causes a serious disruption in their education. Let’s say Danielle, a foster youth in tenth grade, gets moved to a new home where she now has to attend a new school. Danielle was only a couple of weeks away from taking her finals and completing that semester of studies. You’d think her credits for the semester will transfer over to the new school, but because Danielle didn’t get to take the finals, she didn’t officially complete the courses, so it’s marked “incomplete” and there are no grades to transfer over. Through no fault of her own, Danielle just lost credit for three months of education and will now have to retake those same courses, from the beginning. Some foster kids have reported that they ended up taking the same class three times. Fortunately, this issue is being reviewed by state education agencies, and some states have started implementing changes that will help foster children to bring their history of course work with them. However, until there is a national solution, foster teenagers will continue to suffer from interrupted education.

Why is this educational crisis a primary reason for sky high pregnancy rates among foster teens? Love it or hate it, sex education provided by schools is very important. Teenagers are having sex and getting Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) in record numbers. Will a Sex Ed course stop teenagers from trying to have sex like bunnies? Probably not, but it gives youths information about how to avoid STDs and unwanted pregnancies. In the article, “Importance of Sex Education for Youngsters”, author Aditi Dasgupta of OnlyMyHealth.com points out, “Sex education will also expose them to their gender identity, family responsibility, body images, sexual expression, intimacy and the marriage relationship.”

While seemingly unimportant to those of us who attended public school where a Sex Ed course was mandatory along with biology, Sex Education is often something that foster teens are unable to access. Why is that?

Let’s go back to what you just read about foster children and the frequency of their moving to a new foster home. In addition to foster teens having to retake courses, it often happens that the completion of particular courses is not well tracked. With school staff overwhelmed with work, there is often no one person designated to review an incoming student’s transcript to catch whether they’ve taken Sex Ed. So a student can move from one school to the next and never take a Sex Ed course.

Additionally, anywhere from 40% to 70% of foster teens won’t graduate on time. A 2014 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report revealed that “Only about 50% of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by 22 years of age, whereas approximately 90% of women who do not give birth during adolescence graduate from high school.”

Half of the states in this country still have laws that force youths out of their foster homes at age 18. Once forced out, these kids are then still supposed to go to school, study hard and graduate, as well as find a safe place to live and a way to get food. Most foster teens know that they will be on the streets to fend for themselves, and that thought terrifies them. One teen asked his case worker if there was any option other than prostitution as a way to stay alive. Sadly, the realistic answer is often “no.”

The foster teen pregnancy epidemic goes beyond just the challenges of taking a Sex Ed course. States frequently report high rates among foster kids for pregnancy, childbearing and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI). In addition, kids involved in the child welfare system are usually at a high risk for emotional and physical problems.

Evidence has shown that foster kids are prone to having sex at a much earlier age than their non-foster care counterparts, some having been involved in sexual acts well before the ages of 13. A study conducted by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago concluded that out of 700 youths in foster care, 33% of the females had been pregnant as early as 17 years of age. Data revealed that many of these women had experienced multiple pregnancies by the time they reached 19.

Many studies conclude that those in foster care, not guided by the responsible mind of a caring adult, are uninterested in delaying childbearing. Youths in foster care very rarely have the protective relationships with their parents that traditional teens have. Since instability is often the cause of sporadic health care, disjointed education and skill training, many foster kids never receive the pregnancy prevention services and education needed to prevent this type of activity.

So what is being done to help? The federal government recently introduced additional funding to the foster child program, in order to help provide prevention programs that have been tested and proven effective for children and young women in this age range. Yet one of the most proven solutions is still overlooked – family finding.

Study after study highlights the fact that family, not government agencies, provides the stability that children need as they grow up. Pressure from family members and ideas of responsibility and accountability are what keep many teenagers from having random sex. Educational studies highlight the importance parents and other adult relatives play in shaping a child’s views about sex. Without a stable family to guide them, foster children are often left to draw their own conclusions from TV and the Internet – not the best possible role models.

Keep in mind that after age 12, the chances of a foster teen being adopted are less than 1% so for this group, adoption is really not a viable solution. By locating relatives, a foster child can be placed with family members, stopping their being shunted from one home to the next.

Despite these known benefits, state and county agencies continue to underfund family finding efforts, which are relatively inexpensive. The CDC cited that:

“In 2010, teen pregnancy and childbirth accounted for at least $9.4 billion in costs to U.S. taxpayers for increased health care and foster care, increased incarceration rates among children of teen parents, and lost tax revenue because of lower educational attainment and income among teen mothers.”

$9.4 billion is more than the 2015 budget for Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S. with a population of 2,700,000 people! It’s a staggering sum of money, and this is just the cost for teen pregnancy and childbirth. A recent study revealed that the societal cost for each foster child who ages out of the foster care system can be as much as $300,000.

Compared to these numbers, family finding is a bargain -- not just in a financial sense, but for the emotional benefits it brings to each foster child who can now be placed with a loving relative instead of with strangers. When asked, several foster children said they would easily choose living with a distant relative in another state than with strangers in their home town.

With more attention finally being paid to the epidemic of teen pregnancy within foster care, more people are reaching out to help. One can only hope that this extra push of attention concerning pregnancy in foster care will help curb the occurrence of these pregnancies and help increase education about pregnancy prevention. Foster teens deserve to be taught this important information just as any non-foster youth does, in order to give them a chance at a full life.