Obama Proposes New Investments in Preventing Foster Teen Pregnancies

This morning President Obama released his Fiscal 2014 budget, providing his recommendations on everything from tax reform and replacing sequestration to the future of entitlements. Tucked away in the thousands of pages of documents released today is a small but critically important proposal to create the first dedicated federal funding stream for preventing foster teen pregnancies.

President Obama’s proposal would for the first time focus federal funding specifically on preventing foster teens from getting pregnant. The new initiative would be funded at $12 million per year through unspent abstinence funds. Instead of being returned to the Treasury, these funds would be used to award competitive grants to local and state child welfare agencies that demonstrate leadership and initiative in reducing foster youth pregnancies.

Youth in foster care are are at a much higher risk for teen pregnancy than their peers.  By age 19, about half of girls in foster care have become pregnant.  As The Chronicle for Social Change has reported, the outcomes for youth in foster care that do become pregnant are heartbreaking: they are faced with much lower odds of completing school and are more likely to end up living in poverty.  Meanwhile, their children are at an increased risk of experiencing abuse and/or neglect and being placed in foster care themselves.

The federal government long ago recognized the societal costs of teen pregnancy, and since 1981 has funded a number of programs aimed at reducing the number of teens getting pregnant. Unfortunately, between 1996 and 2009, federal funding was almost exclusively spent on abstinence-only approaches that were not scientifically tested and were not targeted to those most at risk of becoming pregnant.

That began to change in 2009 when Congress created two new programs, the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program and the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP).  Both of these programs direct funding toward evidence-based programs that have demonstrated results in reducing teen pregnancies, including both comprehensive sex education and abstinence programs.

Yet the federal government continues to fund abstinence-only education at $50 million per year, even though between $11-15 million of that funding is never used and is returned to the Treasury every year.

Despite the progress achieved through the creation of TPP and PREP, until now there lacked a dedicated funding source specifically targeting the foster youth population, despite the fact that they more sexually active than their peers and less likely to use protection. Many foster youth miss sexual education at school due to frequent school transfers and at home due to a lack of clarity about who is responsible for talking to them about sexual health between the foster parents and social workers.

Grantees of the new foster youth education program would be encouraged to provide “age-appropriate, medically accurate, and evidence-based program interventions,” train foster parents and caseworkers on addressing pregnancy prevention, and work in collaboration with the courts and juvenile justice system as well as social service and reproductive health providers.

The goal of the program is to fund demonstration projects that can “expand the evidence base” about what works best in preventing foster youth pregnancies so that proven interventions can be scaled up and replicated around the country.

Obama’s budget is merely a proposal at this stage, and to implement his foster youth pregnancy prevention program it will take Congressional action.  Given the scope of the problem, the negative outcomes associated with pregnancies by youth in foster care, and the minimal cost of the program, I am optimistic that this proposal can receive bipartisan support in Congress.

But let’s not take that for granted. Let’s all let our Congressional representatives know that this proposal is important to us, that it’s the right thing to do, that it’s cost-effective, and that it should be enacted into law this year.

Sean Hughes is a member of The Imprint’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer.

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