Teen Pregnancy and the Foster Care System

I recently attended a conference conducted by the Children’s Law Center of California (CLCC) called “Nurturing Healthy Relationships for Teen Parents and Their Babies in Foster Care.” Attendees included lawyers who represent foster children, case workers who monitor teen parents, public health nurses, and those who operate group homes for pregnant and parenting teens. CLCC has been working with First Five Los Angeles to identify the specific issues of teen parents in the foster care system and their children, and this conference was the result of those efforts. Topics included barriers to providing sex education in the foster system, lack of access to care, and legal issues faced by teen parents in foster care.

One highlight of the conference was the opportunity to hear a success story of a young family who had been involved in foster care. The mother, who had been a foster child, and the father were able overcome many obstacles and bring their toddler home from foster care. I was impressed by the dedication of all the speakers, and their commitment to the families they served.  There was emphasis on the idea that every situation is unique, and while not every teen mother would be the ideal guardian for her child, with hard work we could help many teen mothers and fathers be good parents.

Of course the solution to unintended teen pregnancy starts with prevention, but there are many barriers to educating foster teens on sexual health issues. They may not have a trusted adult who can provide quality information, or someone of whom they feel they can ask questions. In addition to making it more likely that foster teens will become pregnant, this lack of education can also mean that young women in foster care may not know they are pregnant for several weeks, if not months—or they might fear the consequences of telling their caregivers, so they often keep the pregnancy a secret. These factors lead to missing opportunities for important prenatal care. Foster teens also have a higher rate of unmet physical and mental health issues, which can compound the challenges of making sure they get proper sex education and clinical care. 

Speakers talked about the recent legislation that affirmed that being a foster teen parent is no longer enough justification to remove a child from a home. When possible, the foster system must try to keep the mother and child together in a foster care setting. Speakers also talked about how to measure infant mental health, and evaluate developmental milestones like rolling over and walking. A challenge in assessing the children of foster youth is that family history (when a parent or other siblings reached certain milestones) might be incomplete, or even absent all together, complicating the evaluations. 

Several of the speakers reflected on their own experiences as parents, commenting that making parenting mistakes is a completely normal process for parents of any age, and that the scrutiny giving to teen families was often based on unrealistic expectations. It was emphasized that the natural pitfalls of parenting to not equal risky behavior. Learning how to resolve a mistake is an important lesson for all teenagers.

When it came time to hear from the young family, Lita and Angel captivated the audience.  They worked very hard to find the resources they needed to show that they were the best guardians for their child. They sought out parenting classes, and waiting anxiously for every visitation opportunity. In the end, they were able to present the judge in their case with a binder stuffed with their accomplishments.  You could see the pride on their faces as they flipped through pages of class certifications, scrapbooked photos of visitations days, and other mementos they had collected. In the end, this dedication paid off, and their smiling toddler now lives with them as they balance work, family, and school. 

What struck me most about their story was how Lita and Angel had to look hard for the resources they needed, and how they found most of them by chance. A “Mommy and Me” flyer at the doctor’s office, a contact at a youth center the father remembered from his childhood, or a program a counselor happened to have heard about.  It made me think about how I can strive to provide information about resources to teens who truly want to love their child.