by Blayke Bearman
State Senator Leland Yee (D) of California authored Senate Bill 528 this year that would clarify who is responsible for providing proper sex education to foster youth and ensure that all foster youths have access to age-appropriate, reproductive health education.
As a social worker working in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, I have seen first-hand how vital sex education can be for a teen. One girl I worked with, Emily, had essentially raised herself, coming from a large family in Mississippi with a mom who was abusive.
When she came to our residential program in Chicago at age 18, we welcomed her with open arms and I was assigned to her case. After a bumpy start, Emily began following all the program rules and we developed a strong bond. A couple months later, the staff noticed a change in Emily’s behavior; it became apparent that Emily was pregnant. Unfortunately, our residential program was not licensed to house infants.
I went with Emily to the bathroom and helped her read the instructions on the pregnancy test. Once the double lines appeared on the stick, Emily burst into tears. She was pregnant and she was in shock. It was too late, there was no turning back, and now Emily would be moved to a new foster placement and soon have a new baby.
Our staff helped find Emily a new home and we did everything in our power to get the proper resources in place before she would be on her own again, but many young foster girls do not have these resources or this support.
Since 1991, the teen pregnancy rate in America has declined among all youth except girls in foster care, who are at much higher risk of pregnancy, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Researchers from the University of Chicago suggest that a recent bill, which extended foster care through age 21 in California, will nearly double the rate of parenting youth in care.
Foster youth who would have previously been transitioning out of care are now experiencing their second pregnancies still in care.
Research from the John Burton Foundation shows that 30 percent of parenting foster youth will experience a second pregnancy while in care. Now that California has extended foster care services for youth up to age 21, SB 528 will provide vital services to those youth in order to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.
Emily’s story is not unlike many girls in foster care. The lack of proper reproductive health education leads many youth to unplanned pregnancy, which results in a change of housing. At a time when vulnerable children need support the most, heads turn and fingers point, but the child is left to her own devices.
Many residential programs are not licensed to care for infants and many foster parents do not want the added pressures of caring for a teenager and her child. But ignoring the problem will not make it disappear.
I refuse to sit back and watch the rates of teen pregnancy grow in the foster care system, especially since we can do much more to prevent it. I applaud Senator Yee for taking the first step to help reduce the number of pregnant and parenting teens in foster care by introducing SB 528.
Now, it is up to us to raise awareness and support for SB 528, and give a voice to the foster children whose voices are rarely heard.
Blayke Bearman is a graduate student in the USC School of Social Work. She is currently working for the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office as a Psychiatric Social Work Intern.