There are more than half a million children living in the US foster care system today. After multiple studies, researchers have indicated that teenagers in the foster care system are more likely to become pregnant than teens in the general public. Though rates for teen pregnancy are decreasing in the United States, the US still has the highest teen pregnancy rate of all other industrialized high-income countries in the world. In the foster care system alone, 48% of girls become pregnant by the age of 19, with roughly a third of 17-year-old girls in the system currently pregnant.
When compared to other high-income countries, why are rates for teen pregnancy in the US higher? With that said, why specifically are young women in the foster care system at an even higher likelihood of becoming pregnant than girls in the general population? What’s the bigger social dilemma here, and what can be done? Moreover, what is the relationship between the foster system and high teen pregnancy rate, and why is it so?
A recent report from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy indicated that the “…high rates of pregnancy among those in foster care can be partially attributed to higher rates of sexual activity.” This 2008-2010 research was looking at boys and girls in both the foster system and general public, aged between 15 and 17. Research showed that 58% of boys in the foster system reported to having sex previously, when only 28% of boys in the general population reported to having done so. For girls it was a similar story. 52% of girls in the foster system reported that they had had sex in the past, while only 27% of girls in the general population reported to having had sex previously.
Researchers at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy teamed up with UCAN in a qualitative study to find an answer as to why there were higher teen pregnancy rates among foster youth. After interviewing a number of foster youth and parents in the Chicago area, researchers found several common themes regarding their attitudes towards sex. Overall, they found that foster youth has relatively the same perceptions on sex and sexuality as does the general youth population in the US. However, there were a few themes regarding sex and sexuality that were specific to the foster youth they interviewed. These few themes reveal the potential social, emotional, and personal reasons as to why the rates of pregnancy in foster youth are high.
Young individuals are in the foster care system because the state seeks to remove them from an environment of abuse and/or maltreatment. This includes emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as life-long neglect and lack of supervision. With that said, it is important to look at the context of foster youths’ lives in order to get at the core root of the high pregnancy rates.
Young parents and/or pregnant teens opened up to the researchers about the benefits of having babies at a young age. Most recall the lack of support or love from their biological parents, and see pregnancy as an opportunity to be a better, more responsible parent than what they had. By having a child, they could create a family that they never had. Babies were also viewed as sources of unconditional love, and someone that would never abandon them. Other young parents and pregnant foster teens also noted that having a child was a motivational factor to improve the quality of life for themselves because they had more than one person to be accountable to.
But it has also been discussed that children of teen foster youth parents are highly likely to suffer from abuse, maltreatment, and remain in the welfare system, just as their teen parents had. So what can be done to break this vicious cycle?
One way to break the cycle of poverty is a solution that that we at Generation Hope especially believe in: education. GH’s mission describes us as “a…non-profit organization reducing poverty one family at a time...”. GH understands that education improves the quality of life not only for the individual in school, but uplifts the life of the individual’s family as well. Education gives our Scholars the opportunity to be competitive in the workforce, access jobs and careers that are financially stable and long-lasting, and enables them to be autonomous in multiple areas of life. Education indirectly supports families.
In conclusion, education is one of the primary tools that can dismantle the cycle of poverty. Degrees are not only indicators of completion or success, but are indicative of a larger idea that someone has intentionally invested in their future for the better. When teen mothers or fathers, either a part of the foster system or general public, are able to access education, they are positively investing in the futures of their own lives and their children. It is true then that the higher numbers of people that are educated, the better off families are and society is generally. Now that’s a something that just about anyone can agree with.
-Charlotte Mabon, Program Intern
Fostering Hope: Preventing Teen Pregnancy Among Youth in Foster Care Report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy & UCAN
Why it Matters: Teen Childbearing and Child Welfare Report by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
Statistics on Teen Foster Parents <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/gpr/14/2/gpr140208.html>