WASHINGTON --- Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI), The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the National Foster Care Coalition (NFCC) today announced the formation of a new working group on teen pregnancy and foster care. The group will provide recommendations to the Obama administration and Congress on commonsense solutions to help reduce the disproportionately high teen pregnancy rate among youth in and aging out of foster care.
The announcement was made at a Congressional Roundtable Discussion moderated by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). She was joined by Reps. Michael Castle (R-DE), Jim Cooper (D-TN), Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Danny Davis (D-IL).
Other panelists included teens from PPFA’s peer educator program; CCAI’s congressional foster interns; Susan H. Badeau, a foster/adoptive parent and official with Casey Family Programs; Amy Dworsky, senior researcher at University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall; Shannon Heintz, PPFA community healthy educator and child welfare advocate; and Rachel Winston, social work specialist with the Richmond City (VA) Department of Social Services.
The panel cited firsthand accounts of the limited information and inconsistent services available to foster teens on how to prevent pregnancy, the unique challenges facing youth in foster care and those transitioning from care, and the need for more education and support for foster parents and child welfare staff to help address these issues. They also highlighted innovative approaches to meeting these needs and possible policy and program solutions.
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Senator Landrieu said, “I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of youth in foster care, and that experience has affirmed my belief in one simple truth: it is not the children in foster care that are broken, it is the system we have designed for them. Without exception, they are beautiful, loving children with enormous capacity and potential. Instead of helping these youths deal with the trauma and connecting them with a safe, loving and permanent family, the government somehow manages to strip them of the relationships that all human beings need to thrive. We need to empower young people to make the best choices for themselves to engage in healthy, productive relationships.”
Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, one of the nation’s leading providers of preventive reproductive health care and information to millions of women, men, and teens a year, said, “We are so grateful to Sen. Landrieu for her leadership and her work to raise awareness about the need for increased sexual health education in the foster care system. Together, we will work to strengthen foster care in this country and ensure commonsense policies are in place to reduce teen pregnancy and give youth the information they need to leave healthy, productive lives.”
While the foster care system in the United States serves as an indispensible safety net for thousands of vulnerable youth who have lacked consistent family support or who have experienced abuse and neglect, young people in care and transitioning out of care face a number of challenges that put them at high risk for early pregnancy and parenting. This includes a lack of stable relationships and inconsistent access to comprehensive reproductive health care and information, especially among those transitioning out of foster care.
Miranda Sheffield, of the CCAI Foster Youth Intern (FYI) Program, said “I was taught the ins and outs of how to protect my body and avoid contracting disease but foster care did not teach me how to be confident with my sexuality and grow a positive self-image. That’s an important part of dealing directly with sexuality — so we can be prepared to make critical decisions in the right moments in our lives.” Sponsored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the FYI Program provides talented young college students who have spent their formative years in foster care an opportunity to intern with a member of Congress.
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Alixes Rosado, also of the CCAI Foster Youth Intern (FYI) Program, said, “If it was up to the system to teach me about sex or parenting, and the various types of risk that come along with both of those, I’d have no knowledge whatsoever on the topic. Any advice that I had the privilege of receiving came from older friends, and very few stable adults in my life. It is an area of sensitivity, and a lot of times the worker as well as the youth, are not ready or willing to put themselves in such an awkward position. My response to that is an awkward conversation is a small hurdle compared to the lives you could change by having those type of engagements with your youth.”
A survey of Midwest states conducted by University of Chicago's Chapin Hall found that, by age 19, nearly one-half of young women in foster care have been pregnant. Fully 17 percent of girls in foster care gave birth as a teen, more than double the proportion (eight percent) of their peers outside the foster care system, according to the Casey National Foster Care Alumni Study.
Kathi M. Crowe, executive director of the National Foster Care Coalition, a national nonprofit partnership of organizations, foundations and individuals dedicated to improving the lives of children involved in the foster care system, said, "Many of the young people in and from foster care that the National Foster Care Coalition has spoken to about early parenting are desperately trying to create family. The more we can do to provide youth with permanent, loving families and support for education and career development, the more they will aspire toward those goals."
Once foster youth turn 18 they are often released from the system without vital health care knowledge and services that would help them delay pregnancy and prevent sexually transmitted infections. Given these bleak outcomes, PPFA, CCAI, the National Campaign and NFCC have formed a working group to develop recommendations and raise awareness of the alarming incidence of teen pregnancy among youth in and transitioning out of foster care — both through expanding innovative strategies that currently exist and developing new policy and program initiatives.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy worked with Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network in Chicago to conduct focus groups with youth in foster care and with foster parents. One clear theme that emerged from the focus group sessions is that the information youth in foster care receive about both how and why to avoid early pregnancy is often too little, too late. Some youth mentioned they were already sexually active before they received any information about pregnancy prevention. One young woman put it this way: “When I was first in foster care, I wanted to have a baby, but I didn’t. I saw all these children living in poverty and decided … I wanted to wait until I could take care of my child and give it everything that it needed.” Youth in foster care also report they want to have more open, honest conversations about sex and relationships with their foster parents. One teen mother said, “Talk to the foster teens — really talk, in conversation. No ‘don’t do this or that.’” At the same time, many foster parents say they need additional tools and training to discuss these issues. In the words of one foster father, “It can’t be a conversation, like ‘Yeah, I can just check that off the list. I had the sex education conversation. It is almost like an ongoing thing. …”
Jamal Campbell, a teen involved in the Planned Parenthood Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley Education Outreach program and a teen in foster care, said, “Being raised by different families, I was always around a lot of diverse beliefs and values. In some homes the parents were open to talk about sexuality, relationships, and pregnancy, whereas in other homes they weren’t as open to talking about anything related to the topic. Through my work as an educator, I have the opportunity to provide comprehensive health and wellness education to equip foster parents with medically accurate and culturally appropriate information needed to help teens.”