After entering Texas’ foster care system in 2006, the day after her 14th birthday, Unisha Curry bounced around anywhere from nine to 11 foster homes. In one of her final homes, she had three foster sisters who were teen mothers.
One foster sister gave birth in middle school, and the father of her child fled to another country. Two others gave birth in high school.
Two of her foster sisters' children were taken away from them by Child Protective Services, Curry told The Texas Tribune. The third had her child with her in the foster home.
Curry said her foster sisters, especially the ones who had their children taken away, struggled with the complexities of becoming parents, being in foster care and carrying the weight of sexual and abusive trauma — all before reaching adulthood.
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“They were depressed a lot because they didn’t have their child with them,” Curry recalled. “They were emotionally wounded from that.”
Curry's foster sisters were a part of a larger population of teen parents in Texas' foster care system. According to a report released Sunday by child welfare policy organization Texans Care for Children, teen girls in Texas' foster care system or who have just left it have a much higher risk of becoming pregnant or becoming teen parents compared to others in the state.
In 2017, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services reported that 332 foster care youths were pregnant and 218 youths in foster care were parents, the report says. Moreover, according to data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Texas' teen pregnancy rate was 1.2 percent in 2015 — already one of the highest in the country — but the rate in the foster care system was almost five times higher at 5.7 percent.
"As you can imagine, teen pregnancy in foster care puts the teen and the baby at a high risk in a number of ways, including a high risk of the baby being removed by CPS and placed in foster care," Kate Murphy, senior child welfare policy associate at Texans Care for Children, said in a statement.
The study lists a variety of factors that put foster care teens at risk of becoming pregnant, including a lack of supportive and loving relationships, instability in foster care and stressful or traumatic situations such as child abuse or neglect.
“For foster youth, the state of Texas is the parent in that role,” said Molly Clayton, executive director of the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. “That creates some confusion and complexity around who has the responsibility and the assistance to teach a foster youth about relationships and about sex.”
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In the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers passed numerous child welfare related bills, including one that gave the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services a $4 billion budget for hiring and providing raises for caseworkers and expanding payments to foster care families and other providers.
"The Department of Family and Protective Services, caregivers, medical providers and Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) providers work together to ensure that children in our care are educated and have access to the healthcare they need," Department of Family and Protective Services spokesperson Lisa Block said in an emailed statement. "We are continually evaluating and working to improve the programs provided to youth in our care."
Clayton recognized the state’s work to improve the system but says it could do more.
“We could do a much better job as a state ensuring that every young person — regardless of the family situation — learns about healthy relationships and human anatomy and reproductive health by changing education requirements to include medically accurate, inclusive health and sexual health education for all Texas students,” Clayton said.
The report recommends educating foster youth on healthy relationships and giving them access to health services to both prevent pregnancy and ensure the health of mothers and babies. It also suggests providing support and coaching for individuals who are already pregnant and emphasizes the state’s need to provide pregnant and parenting youth with skills to become successful parents.
Kristen Plastino, a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and director of UT Teen Health, said child welfare workers have a passion to work with foster youth but that high staff turnovers make it difficult for foster care children to have stability with workers. Plastino recommends that organizations support staff more by providing professional development and de-stressing techniques.
“Relationships are key — we know that,” Plastino said. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all for youth or foster care youth.”
Curry, now 26, has been out of the foster system for eight years. She is working part-time and completing her bachelor’s degree, while continuing to be an advocate for foster youth — especially for those like her foster sisters.
“The situation calls for the mother to receive additional health [care] to get her to a place to be able take care of her children,” Curry said. “I think that the children should be with their mothers.”
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