By Sawsan Morrar
When Layla Yunus thinks back to her teenage years raising her son Micah, she
reminisces about his first smiles, his first words. But she also thinks back to the despair and stress she went through being a single, 15-year-old mother who had just entered foster care.
Any hope that she could one day return to her mother’s home faded when her mother learned she was expecting.
“I felt I had no emotional support,” Yunus said. “I didn’t know the first thing about raising a baby. I worried he would end up just like me.”
Now 31, Yunus is advocating for more support for young mothers in foster care. In early February, hundreds of supporters rallied in front of the California capitol building in Sacramento to focus attention on Assembly Bill 260, which would provide support for young parents in foster care.
Assembly member Patty Lopez (D – San Fernando) authored the new bill, which requires that foster care placements must support the family unit and provide adequate resources and services regarding safety, health and well being to the foster child and her baby.
Vanessa Hernandez, the policy coordinator the California Youth Connection (CYC), said the bill would also shield foster children from being labeled as unfit parents based on old or irrelevant behavioral information in their files.
“They talk about their children being taken away,” Hernandez said. “If a foster youth’s room is messy, that’s okay. But if she is a teen parent, it gets documented, and it could be held against them.”
CYC is a youth-led advocacy group, which is a key sponsor of the bill and the organizer of the February rally in Sacramento.
Hernandez knows that these young mothers need extra care and support.
“Every youth has their own needs: housing, financial help, or parenting classes,” she said. “We are providing supportive services. Even though it’s a small population, it’s a vulnerable population.”
One study found that one-third of the young women in foster care reported a history of pregnancy, compared with 19 percent of their same-aged peers. The gap continued to widen as teens aged out of foster care. Among the girls who had been pregnant in foster care, 46 percent of them became pregnant more than once.
Yunus can relate to the many struggles of today’s teenage mothers. At 15 she had a raging temper that made her caseworker question her ability to raise her son. But having Micah forced her to mature quickly, and she had seen too many friends lose their babies because of their own incapabilities.
“I’m glad they gave me a chance, because I ended up being a great mother,” she said. “I know many mothers aren’t so lucky, because of their past history with their foster families and the troubles they have gone through.”
Looking back, Yunus wishes she had someone to speak to about her body changes and baby care. She recalls crying in the bathroom after she accidentally soaked Micah’s umbilical cord while bathing him and it fell off only six days after his birth.
“I panicked and began sobbing uncontrollably,” she said. “I had no one to tell me that everything would be all right.”
Yunus participated in the capitol rally hoping that foster youth wouldn’t feel so alone in their pregnancies and inexperienced in their early motherhood years.
Today Yunus is 31 and has befriended several foster youth mothers who have turned to her with questions about baby care and babysitting.
“I love being there for them, but there is only one Layla,” she said. “We need this bill to pass so we can provide some assistance to these young moms. I know how they feel.”
Sawsan Morrar is a freelance journalist from Northern California. She wrote this story while taking the Journalism for Social Change Small Private Online Course.