Foster youth are dealt a double blow when it comes to the birds and the bees. First they don’t have adequate sexual and reproductive health education, then they aren’t supported through the challenges of being an adolescent or young adult with a child. One California State Senator plans to do something about it.
In 1994, a 22-year-old Amy Lemley took her first job in child welfare: working with 13 pregnant and parenting foster youth in a Boston, Mass., group home. She had little training or guidance in navigating the difficult realities teen mothers face, let alone those who had experienced foster care.
“The challenges facing these young parents and their children were overwhelming,” Lemley said. “They desperately wanted to make a better life for their young children, but they didn’t have the support they needed. Far too many of these young women dropped out of school and ultimately lost custody of their child. It was a tragic introduction to the child welfare system.”
Nearly two decades on, and little has changed. California’s public child welfare system – like that of practically every other state in the country – is devoid of any comprehensive policy to address the heightened rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease among current and former foster youth.
While little was being done for the sexual and reproductive health of foster youth, Lemley was busy. She founded and built one of the country’s premier housing programs for transition-aged foster youth; and worked with counties to expand that model, thus laying the groundwork for the historic passage of Assembly Bill 12 in 2010, a law extending foster care to age 21 in California.
With more older foster youth now in California’s foster care system comes more urgency and opportunity for the system to better serve those that are pregnant or already have children. Over half of foster youth will give birth by age 21, as compared to 24 percent of the same-age population, according to the Midwest Study of Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth.
“Educating young people in foster care about reproductive health and pregnancy prevention is critical, but it falls through the cracks because everyone thinks it is someone else’s job,” Lemley said.
She points to a 2009 survey of California child welfare workers in which only one third of workers discussed sex and reproductive health with half or more of the children on their caseloads. “That’s not good enough. These young people need this information today.”
To address this new emphasis on an old problem, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) introduced legislation in February that would set up a comprehensive system of supports for pregnant and parenting foster youth.
Senate Bill 528 would:
- Prioritize parenting youth’s access to subsidized child care
- Expand the practice of “specialized conferences” pioneered in Los Angeles County
- Ensure that foster youth receive age-appropriate sexual health education
- Require the Department of Social Services to track the number of pregnant and parenting foster youth.
Co-Sponsors of the bill included the Children’s Law Center of California, Public Counsel, the Alliance for Children’s Rights and the John Burton Foundation, for which Lemley serves as the policy director.
Sen. Yee, who became Chair of the Human Services Committee this legislative session, is championing a diverse package of bills to improve the foster care system including this bill dealing with the sexual and reproductive health of foster youth.
“Being the Chair of the Human Services Committee gives me a tremendous platform to drive this particular issue,” Yee said in an interview. “Over the years, I have seen lots of piecemeal efforts. As chair it is an opportunity to fill all the gaps as quickly as you can.”
One of those gaps is the multi-layered needs of pregnant and parenting foster youth and the general lack of adequate sexual health education available to youngsters growing up in foster care.
One of the fundamental issues addressed in the bill is child care. Foster youth, are, by definition, separated from their parents. When they become parents themselves they often have a hard time finding child care – whether it be convincing a foster parent or finding cash to pay a babysitter, Lemley explained.
This seriously compromises their ability to hold down a job or get an education, both critically important factors in the success of their children. A baby reduced the odds of any young mother attaining a GED or high school diploma by 45 percent, according to study of parenting youth in Illinois conducted by Chapin Hall at The University of Chicago
Lemley, who is planning a lobbying day in Sacramento for the bill on April 22, offered a stark example. There are two young mothers who want to come and explain their need for cheap, quality caretakers, but cannot, “because they don’t have child care.”
In addition to the needs of foster youth who already have children, there is the question of how to educate foster youth on sexual health and the costs and benefits of having children young. An exhaustive review of the major published contributions on the issue of pregnancy and parenting among foster youth is unrestrained in its description of youth experiences across the country.
From the review, conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland in 2012:
“The reported experiences of youth in care ranged from perceived negligence on the various systems involved in the placement of foster youth with their newborn, to limited, sporadic, or delayed sex education and reproductive healthcare for youth in care.”
In California, and across the country, foster youth and adolescents are uninformed about sexual and reproductive health and under-supported when they do become pregnant parents or contract a sexually transmitted disease.
Providing adequate sexual and reproductive health information and support to pregnant and parenting youth, advocates of SB 528 argue, is an opportunity to break a cycle that predisposes children raised by the system to having their children removed to foster care and constrains their opportunity to live successful adult lives.
“This is not just about whether or not kids will be pregnant,” Yee said. “It is about whether or not these youngsters will be productive citizens.”
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.