How Should the Courts Treat Young Parents in Foster Care?

Teen and babyThanks to a certain MTV show, young parents are very much in the news, although not in the most nuanced way. The good news is that teen pregnancy has been declining; according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, the teen birth rate declined 44% between 1991 and 2010. Even so, according to the campaign “it is still the case that about one-third of teen girls get pregnant by age 20 and there were more than 400,000 births to teens in 2008.”

A recent Clearinghouse Review article examines problems facing a vulnerable subset of young parents: young parents who are themselves in foster care. These parents face not only the difficulties facing all young parents—lack of educational opportunity and financial stress among them—but also intense scrutiny from the social service agencies and attorneys designated as their protectors. 

The article’s authors represent young parents in foster care at New York City’s Center for Family Representation. They explore the tensions that arise when a young parent in foster care has a baby and the local child welfare agency then files a child welfare case against the young parent. In most parts of the country, when a young parent in foster care becomes a respondent in a family court case, the same child welfare agency responsible for the parent’s welfare as a foster child is responsible for proving that she is a neglectful or abusive parent.

Unsurprisingly, the child welfare agency’s double role can raise trust issues for the young parent. Because they often live in congregate placements, such as mother-child placements or maternity residences, young parents are observed more closely than parents who have the means to live independently. When court cases are filed against them, young parents often continue to work with the same agency personnel who have accused them of abusing or neglecting their children—even though those personnel may end up testifying against them in family court.

Also, because the child welfare agency has a special legal relationship with the young parent, the agency has access to her confidential medical and mental health history. Child welfare agencies sometimes include voluminous detail from young parents’ mental health histories in the initial allegations against them—even if the hospitalizations and mental health diagnoses described predate the birth of the young parents’ children by many years. Child welfare agencies almost never have this kind of access to confidential records for parents who are not in foster care, which shows how agencies can use a young parent’s foster care status to her disadvantage.

While some judges have written sympathetically about young parents who are also foster children, the courts have not found any conflict of interest inherent in child welfare agencies simultaneously taking care of a young parent as a foster child and presenting an abuse or neglect case against that young parent. Is this double role right and lawful? If not, what should child welfare agencies be doing about it?


Ensuring Success in School Task Force Releases Final Report to the Illinois General Assembly

SchoolgirlsStudents who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence face unique challenges as they try to stay in school, stay safe while in school, and successfully complete their education. Failing to complete school can have life-long consequences, with high school dropouts reporting lower employment levels, lower lifetime earnings, and overall poorer health. Teen pregnancy and parenting and domestic and sexual violence are factors that contribute to the dropout and push-out crisis, but have thus far received insufficient attention from policymakers in Illinois.

Because of this, the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center got together a coalition of education, youth, and violence prevention advocates and students and their parents from across Illinois in 2003 to address these issues. The coalition drafted a bill to support elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence, which was introduced by Rep. Karen Yarbrough in 2005 and again in 2007. In 2007, the legislation was enacted into law as Public Act 95-0558. The law created the Ensuring Success in School Task Force, charged with examining and making recommendations regarding barriers to school attendance, successful school performance and graduation faced by students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence.

This summer, the Ensuring Success in School Task Force released its Final Report to the Illinois General Assembly. The report is the product of extensive research, consultation with experts, and public hearings held across the state, and it encompasses all of the task force’s findings and recommendations for how to support elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence.

Moving forward, the Shriver Center is convening a meeting of stakeholders to develop a strategic action plan based on the findings and recommendations of the report. If you are interested in participating in the first meeting, which has been set for Tuesday, September 7, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., or in future meetings, please contact Wendy Pollack at 312-368-3303. For those outside of Illinois who are interested in pursuing these issues in your area, also please contact Wendy.

For more background information on the Ensuring Success in School Initiative, contact Wendy, or see The Ensuring Success in School Act: Promoting School Success and Safety for Young People Who Are Parents, Expectant Parents, or Victims of Domestic or Sexual Violence. The full text of the legislation as originally introduced in 2005 is available at

Shana Heller-Ogden coauthored this article.


Sex Education: The Debate Continues

New research and new legislation on abstinence-only sex education has brought the ongoing debate between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education to a new pitch.

A little context: abstinence-only sex education received small amounts of funding in the 1980s, but got its real start during the Clinton administration with the 1996 welfare reform law. As part of that law, Title V of the Social Security Act was amended. This amendment established funding for abstinence-only programs and outlined the eight requirements for a program to receive funding, including the promotion of abstinence until marriage, and teaching that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and that sex before marriage would likely be psychologically and physically harmful (the law is codified at 42 U.S.C. § 710). Every state, with the exception of California, applied for funds, and loosely interpreted the eight requirements, which largely went unenforced.

Under President George W. Bush there was a significant increase in federal funding for abstinence-only programs, including Title V and the Community-Based Abstinence Education program. The federal funding combined with state matching funds catapulted spending on abstinence-only programs to over $200 million per year by 2005 (up from $9 million in 1997). The Bush administration also began more stringently enforcing the requirements for funding, and states, wary of the restrictions on teaching about birth control and safe sex, slowly began to drop their federal funding requests.

Meanwhile, study after study showed abstinence-only sex education to be not only ineffective, but sometimes even harmful to adolescents. In 1997, teen pregnancy rates in the US went up for the first time in 15 years, along with teen STD rates. The Obama administration finally ended funding for abstinence-only sex education, allowing Title V to expire, and instead redirected funds toward comprehensive, evidence-based programs.

Now, in 2010, the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has released a study claiming to have at last found an abstinence-only program that works. The study, “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months,” raised new hopes for proponents of abstinence-only education, but the kind of abstinence-only program used in this study is vastly different from the Bush-era programs – so much that it would not have qualified for federal funding. The program in this study was neither moralistic nor disparaging toward sex or contraception, and only advocated abstinence until “a time later in life,” not until marriage. 

These changes are certainly steps in the right direction, but withholding critical information from teens on safe sex still raises serious questions, especially given the fact that 25 percent of the 12 year-olds who participated in this study were self-reportedly already having sex. For more information about this study and its findings, see our latest WomanView

Much to the dismay of teen pregnancy prevention advocates, Bush-era abstinence-only programs have not gone away – far from it, actually. Renewed funding for Title V, to the tune of $50 million a year over the next five years (plus state matching funds, up to an additional $38 million per year), was part of the health care reform bill, signed into law last week. 

Preventing teen pregnancy is, of course, important. The Shriver Center supports medically accurate, comprehensive sex education that is appropriate to students’ age, developmental level, and cultural background, not more failed abstinence-only programs. Through our Ensuring Success in School Initiative, we also support teens who are already parents or expectant parents so that they can stay in school, graduate, get good jobs, and raise healthy families.

For more information on sex education policy or on our efforts to support teens who are parents or expectant parents, please contact the Women’s Law and Policy Project.

WomanView is a publication of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center, focusing on legal and policy issues affecting low-income women and girls. You can subscribe to WomanView here

Shana Heller-Ogden coauthored this blog post.