Pregnant Teens in Foster Care — Their Unique Vulnerabilities

Three teen girls hug

Written by: Jaimie-lee

It’s National Foster Care Month. The theme is Strengthening Minds. Uplifting Families. This month, we’re focusing on the unique vulnerabilities of teens in the foster care system — teen pregnancy. For more on this topic, listen to our Foster Care pilot podcast here where we discuss foster care and children in crisis. See the bio of our first guest, Alyssa Taylor, who gave in-the-field insight and has done lots of work with teens in the foster care system, below. 

Among industrialized nations, the United States sits among the countries with the highest teen pregnancy rates, with 34.3 per 1000 females, aged 15-19 getting pregnant. The rate of teen pregnancy itself has been declining, but there are still numerous risks and challenges these youth face, particularly those in the foster care system. 

Youth in foster care, numbering upwards of 391, 098 as of 2021, are vulnerable to numerous dangers. 

Not least of all, fostered teens are reportedly five times more likely to become pregnant than those in regular homes. In some states, foster teenagers are said to have a twice as likely chance of getting pregnant. Whatever the figure, the numbers are worrying. 

And a higher-than-average infant mortality rate of 24% in New York is highly disturbing.

There are gender-based barriers to dealing with teen pregnancy, physical and mental health implications, societal and cultural backlash, and lifelong financial and emotional setbacks.  

Let’s discuss. 

The Health of The Teen And Baby

Teen girl in front of lake

It goes without saying:

Youth — children — need adults to protect, guide, and support them. 

Despite that, merely 45% of foster teen moms accessed first-trimester prenatal care in New York in one survey. 

Meanwhile, an intensive Texan study showed that up to 60 percent of foster care teens do not receive timely and much-needed prenatal care. 

On top of that, 12.7% of foster youth’s babies are born with a low birth weight. Compare this to the 9.3% rate of women and teens not in the foster care system. 

This means that newborns of foster teens are at higher risk of health issues as well as death.

There is a lack of medical care, higher infant mortality rates, and overall inadequate support for foster teen moms. 

Why, in the first place, do they get pregnant then? 

Why Do So Many Foster Teens End Up Pregnant?

Moody teen girl.

As with all issues child-related, higher teen pregnancy rates are a near-direct result of what came before and what is going on in the child’s life.

Reasons teens in foster care are at a higher risk of getting pregnant include: 

  • Child abuse and neglect leads to emotional and physical trauma and health issues.
  • The lack of healthy bonds with a parent, guardian, or role model who could help develop decision-making skills and answer questions.
  • No consistent school attendance and frequent moving create instability.
  • Scarcity of information about sexual behaviour, birth control, consent, and reproductive health. 
  • Caseworkers who hold certain religious beliefs and practices and withhold crucial reproductive health information from youth. 
  • Youths’ desire to create their own family due to a lack of their own and distorted emotions.

The opposite of all the above-listed items has been shown, via research, to reduce the likelihood of teen pregnancies:

  • A healthy, upbringing with minimum trauma decreases the chances of a young girl getting pregnant.
  • Strong relationship bonds with well-intentioned peers and adult figures who can answer sex and relationship questions will also reduce the likelihood of a teen becoming a young mother.
  • Proper sexual education, transparency regarding reproductive health, and the instilling of age-appropriate hobbies, goals and aspirations will further help a teen not fall into the difficult experience of being a teen mom. 

What About Gender-Specific Dangers?

Group of teenagers

Girls in foster care are particularly vulnerable to persons eager to prey on their lack of self-worth and societally-induced insecurities. 

Human traffickers take advantage of these girls, many of whom have never experienced unconditional love, compassion, or affection. The traffickers will initially pose as a caring boyfriend and might be the only person the vulnerable teen girl believes she can trust. 

Before long, the girl will end up in a sexually abusive situation and may fall victim to a Stockholm Syndrome-like behavior, whereby she’ll return to the trafficker due to the initial feelings of trust and acceptance. 

Meanwhile, all foster youth are at higher risk than the general population of becoming victims of human and sex trafficking. 

According to Business Insider

“In 2013, 60% of child victims the FBI recovered were from foster care. In 2017, 14% of children reported missing were likely victims of sex trafficking, and 88% of those had been in child welfare, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported.”

When not a victim of trafficking, foster girls may become runaways. With a 61.4% rate of running away, girls and young women in the foster care system are more likely to run away than their peers. 

Other factors of becoming a runaway foster youth include being an older teen, a member of a minority race or ethnic group, an LGBTQ member, a substance user, having mental health issues, foster care placement instability and a history of abuse or being sex trafficked. 

The Cyclical Nature of A Foster Teen Pregnancy

Teen girl looking through fence

When a teen is pregnant in the foster care system, the State system is obligated to handle the necessary medical and emotional care that teen now requires. 

However, if this doesn’t happen, teens may face emotional trauma as well as the infant endure those health risks mentioned earlier. 

The trauma the teen faces is very likely to be passed on through gene expression, which affects the child and future generations.

Additionally, teens often find themselves financially and emotionally out of their depth when they age out of the system. 

The result? Their child also ends up in the foster care system. And so the cycle continues. 

How do we end it? 

How Can We Do More? 

Teens are resilient, strong, and, if afforded the rights and respect they deserve, highly intelligent. Adults hold the responsibility to empower and educate teens who are in vulnerable situations. 

If a teen does get pregnant, we are the ones who should show compassion and offer guidance. Many teen moms endure shame and guilt on the inside, while feeling obliged to show false obstinance and grit on the outside.

Here are some steps we can take to help them through: 

  • Training and Communication — If you are ever a point of contact for foster teens, you have the opportunity to reduce the chance of teen pregnancy by speaking to teens about healthy relationships. This should be backed by sufficient training and supported with a plan from the foster agency, which is typically required by state law. (Only 38% of agencies have a prevention or communication plan, so take the initiative if needed). 
  • Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs — These can be created to teach and empower children through methods like text messaging, apps, videos, mentorship, group discussions, role-playing, and goal-setting. Teens should be educated about sexually transmitted diseases, safe sex, how to say no, and birth control. Counseling can also be provided. Trauma-informed care and programs will do a lot to support healthy pregnancies, prevent tough ones, and enable children to make healthy life choices.
  • Funding For Stability — More recently, funding has been allocated for evidence-based -intervention programs, -pregnancy prevention programs, and -sex education programs. This is especially useful for teens who frequently move as moving makes it difficult to retain any stable and trustworthy relationships they’ve managed to build in one place. Moving often also means they have to familiarize themselves with nearby clinics or reproductive health organizations, so funded resources are essential. 

If you need more information on the foster care situation for vulnerable teens, feel free to contact us. Want to make a donation and directly help the cause? Donate here. 

And don’t forget to listen to The Foster Podcast here. Our pilot episode features guest Alyssa Taylor: 

Alyssa Taylor, a Certified and Licensed Midwife, has cared for over 1000 families in the last 15 years. She is a clinical preceptor for several Midwifery education programs and was previously a Women’s Health Clinical Preceptor for Case Western Reserve University.

Alyssa has a special interest in maternity care for under-served communities, survivors of trauma, homeless women, and teens. She has worked with pregnant teens in foster care in a support and educational role as a Doula, and as a primary maternity care provider as a Midwife.

Alyssa has recently returned to school to become a Licensed Social Worker and plans to specialize in Perinatal Social Work.