Research has shown that adolescent parenthood is far more common among young people in foster care than among their peers in the general population. Potential explanations for the high rate of parenthood among youth in foster care include a desire to create a family and fill an emotional void, a perceived lack of stigma or opportunity costs, the developmental effects of childhood trauma, a lack of information about sexual and reproductive health, difficulty accessing sexual and reproductive health care services, and the absence of close relationships with parents or other trusted adults.
The high rate of adolescent parenthood among youth in foster care is disconcerting for several reasons. First, being an adolescent parent is difficult under the best of circumstances. It is even more difficult when the adolescent parent is a young person in foster care with a history of abuse, neglect or other trauma, whose living arrangements are unstable and who lacks family support. Second, youth in foster care are already at risk for poor outcomes; becoming a young parent could increase that risk. Third, the children of adolescent parents in foster care are at higher risk for child abuse and neglect and have a higher rate of child welfare services involvement than the children of adolescent parents not in foster care.
The circumstances of youth in foster care coupled with the challenges of being an adolescent parent means that adolescent parents in foster care require a great deal of guidance and support. However, few, if any, evidence-based interventions for adolescent parents were designed for or tested with youth in foster care. That said, there are a number of steps that child welfare systems, child welfare professionals and other service providers can take to improve the outcomes and wellbeing of young parents in foster care and their children.
Steps to Success
First, caseworkers, foster parents and other caregivers should be trained on how to support young parents in foster care and provide young parents in foster care with guidance on how to balance the adult responsibilities of being a parent with their own developmental needs as adolescents. Child welfare agencies could designate staff who are knowledgeable about healthy adolescent and early childhood development to work with young parents or contracting with private agencies who specialize in working with parenting youth and their children.
Second, the child welfare system should offer a continuum of placement options tailored to the developmental needs of both adolescent parents and their children. This continuum should include foster homes in which young parents are cared for together with their children while developing their parenting skills (sometimes referred to as a whole family foster home or shared family care); residential care programs that allow young parents with significant mental or behavioral health problems to remain with their children while they receive treatment; and supervised independent living arrangements for young parents who are preparing to “age out.”
Third, in most cases, services for young parents in foster care and their children can be provided without bringing the children into the child welfare system. When that is not possible, the children should either be placed with their parents or with a family member or foster parent in close proximity to facilitate frequent visitation.
Fourth, federal law requires that when children born to youth in foster care live with their parent, the “maintenance” payments made by the state to the caregiver of the young parent must include an additional amount for the child. However, because that “infant supplement” is often considerably less than the amount the state would provide to care for another child, there is a disincentive for foster parents to care for young parents and their children together. It is also very difficult for young parents in supervised independent living arrangements to adequately provide for their children. Increasing the infant supplement would address both of these problems.
Finally, the child welfare system should ensure that adolescent parents have access to wide array of services to build their parenting capacity, support their healthy development and prepare them for the transition to adulthood. Equally important, their children should have access to quality child care or early education programs, appropriate developmental assessments and early intervention services if needed. For this to occur, child welfare agencies must develop partnerships with other public agencies and with community-based organizations.
Particularly important would be connecting parenting youth in foster care with home visiting programs. Evidence-based home visiting programs have been shown to lower the incidence of reported child abuse and neglect, strengthen mother-child relationship, improve maternal and child health, delay repeat childbearing, and increase children’s readiness school. Despite their clear need for services, young parents in foster care and their children have traditionally been underserved by these programs. My own experience as the evaluator of a pilot program in Illinois that provides home visiting services to pregnant and parenting youth in foster care suggests that serving young parents in foster care does present a number of unique challenges (such as maintaining continuity of services when placements change), but that that these barriers can be overcome — although doing so requires a tremendous amount of coordination and collaboration between the two sectors than typically exists.
With Help, Comes Success
With developmentally appropriate services and supports, young parents in foster care can achieve successful outcomes for themselves and their children. Although those services and supports are available in some jurisdictions, many gaps remain. This is especially troubling given that the number of parenting youth in foster care is only likely to increase — at least in the near future.
The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 extended eligibility for federally funded (Title IV-E) foster care to youth until their 21st birthday. Although states are not required to provide extended foster care, the Children’s Bureau has approved plans for extended foster care in 24 states as well as the District of Columbia, and as the number of young adults in extended foster care continues to grow, so too will the number of young parents. Unfortunately, the Fostering Connections Act makes no mention of young adults who are parents and provides no exceptions for young parents who cannot meet either the education or employment requirements for extended foster care because of childcare responsibilities.
Dr. Amy Dworsky is a Research Fellow whose research focuses on vulnerable youth populations including youth aging out of foster care, homeless youth and foster youth who are pregnant and/or parenting as well as the systems in which those youth are involved.