Researchers find high rate of teenage pregnancy among foster youth

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A study conducted by a team of UC Berkeley and USC researchers found a very high rate of teen pregnancy within California’s child welfare system.

The study, released Nov. 12 and titled “California’s Most Vulnerable Parents: A Population-Based Examination of Youth Involved with Child Protection Services,” revealed that one in four female foster youths gives birth before age 20 and that 40 percent of these mothers give birth to another child while still in their teenage years. The study also found that four out of every 10 teen mothers are victims of abuse prior to pregnancy.

By using these data, the researchers sought to better understand the dynamics of the child-welfare population, said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, an assistant professor at USC who led the team of researchers. Bryn King, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the School of Social Welfare, and Barbara Needell, a research specialist at the Center for Social Services Research, participated in the research.

Funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which supports nonprofit organizations that help disadvantaged people worldwide, the study is a long-standing collaboration between UC Berkeley, USC and the California Department of Social Services. It is the first study of foster youth to be conducted at a statewide level in the United States, King said.

The team looked at 1.5 million California birth records from 2000 to 2010 as well as 1 million Child Protective Services records in order to learn more about young mothers in California and determine the number of teenage parents who have been involved in the welfare system.

“There’s a tendency to think narrowly about our systems and to forget that child welfare operates within a much broader health and social service network,” Putnam-Hornstein said. “To further reduce the rates of teen birth and best support young mothers and children, we need to look at resources both in and outside of child welfare.”

According to King, the study was conducted to investigate how maltreatment and exposure to foster care relate to teen pregnancy.

“It is important research because it gives us the full lay of the land of what’s happening with this particular population of young women,” King said.

The study is part of the Hilton Foundation’s foster youth initiative, which focuses on helping youth in Los Angeles County and New York City transition out of foster care. Bill Pitkin, director of domestic programs at the Hilton Foundation, said the foundation is working toward sharing its research with foster-care programs.

In addition to publicizing the research in academic journals and other publications, the researchers would like to better inform current foster programs about pregnancy prevention and provide services for pregnant foster youth and their children, Pitkin said.

Lydia Tuan covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected].