by Amy Lemley
Like many in child welfare, I began my career as a residential counselor in a group home. Although only 22 years old, I was somehow charged with addressing the employment, education, health and child care needs for 13 pregnant and parenting teens and their children.
Over the course of four years, I saw these young women struggle. Despite their deep love for their children and a desire to provide a better future, most of the young women I knew did not escape the throes of poverty. Even worse, many of them lost custody of their children to the foster care system.
I wish things had radically changed for parenting foster youth since then, but unfortunately they haven’t. Parenting foster youth fall into the double cross-hairs of foster care and teen parenthood. Educationally, they fall far behind their peers, with a rate of high school graduation 13% lower than non-parenting foster youth and 25% lower than their non-foster youth peers.
As young, often single parents, two out of three will live at, or below the poverty line in adulthood. Most troubling, children of parenting foster youth are a full five times more likely to be maltreated and placed into foster care themselves.
That’s why Senate Bill 528, authored by California State Senator Leland Yee, is so important. It puts into place four common-sense measures that will improve the outcomes for parenting youth in foster care in California.
First, it will ensure all foster youth have access to sexual development and reproductive health information starting at age 12. Without the involvement of parents, responsibility for providing this information often falls through the cracks.
This was the conclusion of a 2009 survey that found only a third of California child welfare workers discussed these issues with half or more of the youth on their caseload. The same study found that Independent Livings Skills Programs do not address this topic consistently.
The effect of this lack of health education is a baby boom. Teen girls in foster care are 2.5 times more likely to become pregnant by age 19 than those not in foster care. By age 21, a full 50 percent of foster youth will have given birth to at least one child, a rate more than double the same-age population.
Second, Senator Yee’s legislation puts into place a voluntary, specialized case conference, where the pregnant youth and her supporters develop a plan for the birth of the child and related issues, such as how the birth of the child will affect the youth’s foster care placement.
A key element of this plan is ensuring timely referrals to prenatal care, which currently does not occur. Only one in five California child welfare workers thought it was their responsibility to refer a pregnant youth for prenatal care. Diffuse responsibility results in delayed prenatal care, as was the conclusion in a study in Illinois, which found that 22% of youth did not receive any prenatal care during their first six months of pregnancy.
Third, SB 528 will add parenting foster youth to a list of individuals who receive priority for subsidized child care. This is urgently needed. According to data from the State of California, in 2012, just 4 percent of custodial mothers who exited foster care had either applied or received subsidized child care when they were discharged from foster care. This lack of access is keeping young parents out of school, out of jobs and without the access to opportunity they need to become economically stable.
Finally, SB 528 will require the State of California to track the number of parenting youth and their children. Currently, we cannot answer the most basic questions, such as how many parenting youth are in foster care or how many of their children have been removed and placed into foster care.
This information is vital if we are to understand how to target limited resources to prevent unintended pregnancies, support young parents and prevent maltreatment of the children of parenting foster youth.
To learn more about SB 528 and how you can join the effort to make this change, attend a web seminar on Wednesday, April 3rd from 10:00-11:30 am.
–Amy Lemley is the policy director for the John Burton Foundation