Preventing Teen Pregnancy: Among Youth in Foster Care

By Bilchik, Shay; Wilson-Simmon, Renee | Policy & Practice, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Preventing Teen Pregnancy: Among Youth in Foster Care


Bilchik, Shay, Wilson-Simmon, Renee, Policy & Practice


Few adolescent issues have drawn as much attention or produced such high levels of concern among families, community members, and governmental and social institutions as teen pregnancy, especially in recent years. Teen birth rates--which declined among all racial and ethnic groups beginning in the 1990s and flattened out in the early 2000s--increased in 2006. In that year, there was a 3 percent rise in both the teen pregnancy rate and the teen birth rate. Clearly, such statistics do not bode well for our nation's youth. However, there is a population of young people who are at even greater risk for teen pregnancy and parenting: youth in foster care.

There are no national statistics on the sexual behavior of foster care youth, including the extent of teen pregnancy and parenting. However, research has been conducted that sheds some light on these youths. It indicates that teens in foster care are more likely than those not in the foster care system to:

(1) engage in early, unprotected sex,

(2) have sexual partners with an STI, and

(3) have been pregnant. In fact, teen girls in foster care are two and a half times more likely than those not in the system to experience a pregnancy by age 19. Compounding this reality is another troubling finding: Repeat pregnancies are common, with almost twothirds of young women in foster care experiencing more than one pregnancy by age 21.

There is no debating that young people face a range of challenges as they make the often-difficult transition from child to adolescent to young adult. It is during adolescence--when changes in biological, cognitive, psychological and social functioning often occur simultaneously--that many of them begin to feel increased pressure to succeed in multiple domains. They are expected to do well academically and socially, navigate family-related issues effectively, and resist pressure from peers--and sometimes adults--to engage in risky behaviors, including those that may result in pregnancy and early parenting.

In an ideal world, young people receive support from their families, peers and caring adults in a range of settings that enables them to meet and often exceed such expectations. However, no youth lives in an ideal world. A multiplicity of environmental factors shape their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. Therefore, we must take an ecological perspective, examining the domains in which young people live: family, school, community and peer group--and the potential risk and protective factors within each. Ifone takes this ecological approach it is clear why teen pregnancy should be an issue of even greater concern for youth in foster care than for the adolescent population as a whole. Without the support of family, and buffeted by the chaotic and unsettling impact of being removed from their home, school, peer group and community, youth placed in foster care lose the important connections that other teens have that help anchor them. An all-too frequent result: Young people making bad decisions that have life-long consequences.

One of the important responsibilities young people must take on is making good decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. We know that young people who are sexually active, especially those living in impoverished communities, face serious challenges. They are at heightened risk of engaging in intercourse at an early age, having an early pregnancy, contracting a sexually transmitted infection, and--in many cases--falling into a cycle of disadvantage that many never escape. Therefore, it is essential that parents, community members, youth development organizations and both practitioners and policy-makers within education, public health, juvenile justice and child welfare contribute to cultivating community supports, public policies and human service reforms that promote the healthy development and positive life options of these youths. Currently, there are more than 500,000 young people in foster care, with 40 percent between the ages of 13 and 21 years old. …

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