I entered foster care at the age of 2 when my parents became incarcerated, facing life sentences. I spent the next 18 years in foster care.
The foster care system put a lot of effort into stabilizing my placements and ensuring I stayed at grade level. But one notable gap was my health, specifically, my sexual and reproductive health.
More than half of young women in foster care in California will have been pregnant at least once by 19, a rate that is three times greater than for non-foster youths, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Two thirds of the young women who become pregnant describe their pregnancy as unwanted and unplanned. While the rate of unintended pregnancy is at an all-time low nationally, young women in foster care aren’t making similar gains.
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Not surprisingly, this leads to early childbearing. A University of Southern California study found that 35 percent of young women who were in foster care at the age of 18 gave birth by age 21. Again, that rate is more than double the rate of non-foster youths.
It is far worse in the Valley, where Tulare and Fresno counties have the state’s worst rates. In Tulare County, about 46 percent of young women in foster care will give birth by age 21 and in Fresno County, it is about 45 percent.
MORE THAN HALF OF YOUNG WOMEN IN FOSTER CARE IN CALIFORNIA WILL HAVE BEEN PREGNANT AT LEAST ONCE BY 19, A RATE THAT IS THREE TIMES GREATER THAN FOR NON-FOSTER YOUTHS. IN TULARE AND FRESNO COUNTIES, IT IS FAR WORSE.
Fortunately, something can be done. The Legislature is considering a proposal to invest $2.8 million in a program to prevent unintended pregnancy by providing foster kids with comprehensive sexual health education, helping enforce our reproductive rights, and training child welfare professionals.
In foster care, I was always on the move, living in nine homes and attending six schools. That caused me to miss out on a lot, including the sexual health education most teens get in school.
California law requires students to receive sex education once in middle school and once in high school. For me, that didn’t happen because of changes to my schools and placements. The budget proposal would require that social workers track foster kids’ education to make sure they receive comprehensive sexual health education.
Second, the budget proposal would ensure that youths are informed of their right to sexual and reproductive health care.
The biggest issue with being placed in different households is that each foster family has its own cultural beliefs. In one placement, my foster parent prohibited any conversations about sex and didn’t allow us access to birth control.
This was a violation of my rights, but what was I supposed to do? I was a teenager and didn’t know any differently. The proposal being considered by the Legislature would require social workers to inform youths of their reproductive rights and facilitate access to reproductive health care.
Finally, the proposal includes training for all child welfare personnel including caregivers and social workers. Not one of the seven social workers I had during my time in foster care even attempted to have the “birds and the bees” talk with me. If the conversation had taken place, I could have made much better decisions around my sexual health.
I did not have an unintended pregnancy. But my older sister did. I have seen first hand the challenges she has faced. She is unemployed and moves from shelter to shelter with her young child. Sadly, studies show that most foster kids who have children will not participate in higher education and their children are more likely to enter the foster care system due to maltreatment. We can do much better.
My goal is to help reform foster care, so all foster youths can have a fair chance in adulthood. The Legislature has the opportunity to help by investing in preventing unintended pregnancy among those in foster care. Let’s not miss it.
Alexis Barries is a youth organizer for John Burton Advocates for Youth and attends Sacramento City College. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.