Foster care does not cause teen pregnancy.
By Monica Faulkner, Ph.D., LMSW
Thanks to a recent report, Texas is one of the first states to actually know how many youth in foster care are pregnant or parents already. Of the 7,090 females ages 11 to 18 in foster care in 2017, 332 were pregnant and 218 were parents. Foster youth are approximately five times more likely to get pregnant compared to all youth.
Hearing that youth in foster care are five times more likely to get pregnant is shocking, disappointing and something that we cannot ignore. However, it is important to clarify that the Texas foster care system itself is not causing higher pregnancy rates.
The rates of pregnancy for foster youth are similar to other high-risk groups such as youth involved in the juvenile justice system, youth who have substance use and/or mental health issues, youth who are homeless and although it surprises many, youth who are LGBTQ. Anytime you take a group of youth who have faced some adversity and compare that group to all youth, you will end up with differences in life outcomes. It is an apples to oranges comparison and it only tells a piece of the story.
The other piece of the story is rooted in a much deeper complexity about why adversity exists for some youth and not others. To tell a more complete story, we have to be willing to talk about uncomfortable things such as poverty, race, and inequality, which not only are risk factors for teen pregnancy but are also risk factors for entering foster care. Young mothers coming from impoverished communities often see motherhood as their rite of passage for becoming an adult. Foster youth come from the same communities and share the same ideas about adulthood. Motherhood may not be planned, but it is generally welcomed, embraced and seen as an opportunity to be a grown-up. Because of this reality, access to educational and occupational opportunities is just as important as access to sexual healthcare.
Sexual trauma is an even more complex piece of this story. Although most youth come into foster care due to neglectful supervision, many have experienced sexual abuse or witnessed violence within their biological families. They may never disclose this prior abuse. Sexual trauma becomes steeped in shame, confusion, and self-blame which ultimately leads to negative sexual health and unhealthy relationships. Thus, sex education must be coupled with therapeutic approaches that simultaneously help youth process their trauma histories.
Foster parents and caseworkers are humans and like most adult humans, there is discomfort talking to children about sex, particularly if we know that the child has experienced sexual trauma. Every child needs to have ongoing conversations about sexual health, healthy relationships, and their future plans. The idea that there is one “sex talk” or a couple of classes in school is inadequate for every child. Foster parents, caseworkers and every adult who interacts with foster youth should be trained in having trauma-informed discussions with foster youth about sex. However, successful training cannot be a punitive requirement. Rather, it should focus on building confidence and skills of the adult and provide ongoing support for adults and technical assistance for agencies.
There is not one simple solution to this issue and no solution can be housed in just one entity, group or agency. We can, however, acknowledge the complexity and start to develop and test innovative strategies for Texas foster youth. Most importantly, we have to use strategies that recognize the impact trauma has on youth. We have to build opportunities for youth to become successful adults so they will be successful parents. We also cannot ignore high pregnancy rates in other marginalized populations who also need help.
But most importantly, we have to remember that the foster care system does not increase the likelihood of pregnancy. Trauma and inequality increase the risk and our solutions have to be centered on addressing the more uncomfortable realities that come with thinking about trauma and inequality.
Monica Faulkner is a research associate professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and the director of the Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing at The University of Texas at Austin.