Thanks 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?