September 23, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
In California, there’s a crisis among girls in foster care. Alarming numbers of them are having babies prior to age 21. Indeed, those foster girls/young women are becoming pregnant and having children at rates far in excess of national averages. California’s solution? More foster care. Read about it here (Chronicle of Social Change, 9/3/15).
I’ve inveighed against foster care many times. Based to a great extent on federal cash incentives, states take children into care at rates that far exceed anything that’s necessary. Sadly of course, some parents are truly dangerous to their children’s well-being and so some form of care outside the home becomes necessary. But, as many veterans of child welfare agencies have said, too often, taking children from parents seems to be the first resort of CPS workers instead of the last. The simple truth is that, even when parents are moderately abusive of their children, the kids are still better off with them than in foster care.
Foster kids exhibit a range of detrimental behaviors each of which is greater than those of non-foster kids. Those include a greater chance of being physically or sexually abused, greater drug and alcohol abuse, poorer educational outcomes, greater involvement in crime and, for girls, a higher incidence of early pregnancy. Which brings us to California.
More than 35 percent of adolescent girls in California’s child-welfare system will have given birth before the age of 21, according to a new report from Emily Putnam-Hornstein and researchers from the Children’s Data Network at the University of Southern California.
More than 35%? How does that compare to young women generally? The Bureau of the Census tells us that the rate for all American girls ages 15 – 19 is 2.2%, which means foster girls in roughly the same age range are 16 times as likely to conceive a child as the national average. Sixteen times!
Of course that comparison is apples to oranges. The demographics of those foster girls surely isn’t the same as that of 15 – 19-year-olds generally. But still, a sixteen-fold difference is shocking. And in any case, we know that it is precisely foster care that brings about that host of behavioral deficits – one of which is teen or early pregnancy - that afflict foster kids. Doubtless much of the cause can be traced to the separation from their parents and of course being cared for by strangers who may or may not be as loving as biological parents likely doesn’t help. The knowledge that foster parents are doing it for the money probably has a negative effect too.
All that means that kids in foster care have a single overriding wish. Veteran CPS manager Molly McGrath Tierney puts it bluntly: “They want to go home.” However deficient their real parents were, most kids in foster care want to be with them. Unsurprisingly, most kids do just that – go home – when they turn 18 and the state stops paying their foster parents for their care.
So, given all the detrimental effects of foster care on kids and given the astonishingly high rate of early pregnancy in foster girls, you’d think states would be trying to figure out how to keep kids out of foster care. And some are, but not California, not in this case. No, the Golden State has decided that the cure for what ails these foster girls is – you guessed it – more foster care.
In 2012, California passed the Fostering Connections to Success Act (also known as Assembly Bill 12) that extended eligibility for foster care and related benefits to age 21 for foster youth who otherwise would have aged out of the system at 18.
By providing better data on pregnant and parenting teens in California’s foster-care system for the first time, Putnam-Hornstein and her team hope that this information can be used to better guide the delivery of pregnancy prevention and parenting support services under extended foster care…
With a significant population of adolescents in the foster-care system who have given birth before age 21, the team of researchers suggests that extended foster-care resources tied to housing, transitional supports and child care should be restructured to meet the needs of this group.
I’m sure these people are sincere, and I applaud any honest effort at reducing teen pregnancy. But they’re missing the obvious. The cure for early pregnancy, or for any of the other many problems faced by foster kids is not more foster care. The cure, if there is one, is less. The cure is intervening with their parents to teach them better parenting skills so their children can return to their care quicker or maybe never leave. If we want these young women to have first pregnancy rates like those of the rest of their peers, we need to give them home environments as much like those of their peers as possible. The simple truth is that, for a variety of reasons, foster care generally is one of the worst places in which a child can grow up.
Meanwhile, the researchers and state legislators seem to have overlooked something in their zeal to keep children in foster care longer. The age of majority in California is 18. That’s the age at which Californians are considered adults. So when a young woman turns 18, the state has no power to tell her where to be. She can walk out of her foster parents’ house and never look back and no one can stop her. Of course, if she chooses and her foster parents are game, she can stay. The 2012 statute seems to allow that. But, as Molly McGrath Tierney told us, the strong probability is that she won’t want to stay. She’ll probably want to go home.
But whether she stays or goes, longer-term foster care isn’t the answer to her problems. The answer came a long time back when the state had a chance to do something constructive with her biological parents. But, due to federal financial incentives to do so, the state ignored that answer and took her into care. Now it wants to spend even more money to try to right what it did wrong.
States need to get it right the first time. They need to work constructively with parents to provide the best home possible for their own flesh and blood. Fortunately, Washington now offers states the opportunity to take different approaches to at-risk kids and still receive federal money. Reports out of Washington encourage us to believe that legislation may be coming that would increase that trend. I hope so. Here’s my post on that.
For now though, California needs to understand that, for far too many children, foster care is the problem, not the solution.
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