The teenage pregnancy rate in the United States, including Texas, continues to fall, according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But that might not be the case for one segment of the Texas population with persistently high teen pregnancy rates: foster youth.
Until this year, Texas has not kept track of how many of the children in the state's foster care system are pregnant or parenting. The best estimates, experts say, come from academic studies of foster youth and young adults that suggest the rate of teenage parents among fosters is far higher than among the general population.
A law passed in 2015 will require the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to collect data and publish it for the first time in an annual report in February 2017. A spokesman for the agency, which oversees foster care, could not provide an estimate of how many pregnant or parenting youth are currently in the system.
Supporters of the law say the data could help Texas better identify at-risk youth and get them needed support. Foster youth who give birth at a young age are more likely to be separated from their children, and their children are often then put back into the foster system, advocates said.
State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, a Democrat from Austin who spearheaded the new law, said the data-tracking requirement was a “tough sell” at the conservative Legislature. A bill she filed containing that measure, which would have also required the state to provide more services to pregnant or parenting foster youth, died in a Senate committee, but the data-tracking requirement was passed as an amendment to a package of other reforms.
“I’m really kind of dumbfounded that we were not tracking that information already,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, another Austin Democrat who has closely followed teen pregnancy issues.
“We all hear a lot of that kind of rhetoric here at the Capitol about parental responsibility” for reducing teenage pregnancies, Howard said. “Well, we’re the parents. We need to be responsible for these young people who are under our care.”
Data specific to Texas is difficult to come by, but the national teen birth rate for girls in foster care is roughly twice as high as the general population’s, according to advocacy group Texans Care for Children.
And one study of 21-year-old men who had aged out of foster programs in the Midwest found that roughly half reported having gotten at least one woman pregnant.
Foster youth are more susceptible to becoming teenage parents because of their trauma history and placement instability, advocates say. Later, young women who age out of the closely scrutinized foster care system are more likely to experience homelessness and face involvement from Child Protective Services — a “troubling cycle,” said Ashley Harris, a policy associate with Texans Care for Children.
“That outcome is absolutely tragic and unacceptable given that the state was a parent to that young child,” she said.
Aja Gair, senior director of residential services at the Austin Children’s Shelter, works with pregnant and parenting foster youth to prepare them to live independently. Gair declined to discuss specific cases but offered this portrait of a typical teenage girl in foster care struggling with an unplanned pregnancy:
She is 14 to 16 years old, sometimes carrying a child after being sexually abused at home. She is emotionally and developmentally delayed as a result of past trauma. And she has likely lived on the street or in other shelters before arriving.
“They have a child that there’s probably a lot of guilt and shame and mixed feelings about because it’s tied to abuse,” Gair said. “They haven’t had the chance to be a teenager. The confusion and the robbed childhood piece of the picture is something you see all the time.”
Foster youth advocates hope the state will have an easier time coordinating social services for pregnant teens by having more accurate data to keep track of them, helping nonprofit workers the state contracts with “to become more preventative and less reactive,” said Stacy Bruce, the shelter’s executive director.
But data collection is only the first step, said Leslie Gaines, program director for foster care transitional services at the Austin nonprofit LifeWorks. She said reducing teenage pregnancy rates among foster youth will require structural reforms that improve girls’ mental health and general wellbeing.
“When youth can actually see that they have potential in their life, that there is something that they can be achieving that is greater than what they see in front of them right now, then they are going to be more likely to put off parenting,” Gaines said. “But they have to honestly believe that it’s worth it, that there’s a reason why it makes a difference to wait."
Harris, a former CPS caseworker, recalled the story of a teenage girl she kept track of for four years and who became pregnant at 18. The girl, whose name Harris declined to give for privacy reasons, had a traumatic past that involved more than 20 foster home placements, Harris said.
“We expect young people who become pregnant to automatically have the skill set needed to be safe parents, but when you’ve never been parented yourself, how can you be nurturing?” she said. “How can you protect your child and provide that thriving home that every child deserves, when you’ve never seen it yourself?”