The 2015 pregnancy rate among Texas teens in the foster care system was almost five times higher than the pregnancy rate for girls not in foster care, according to a report released Monday by Austin nonprofit Texans Care for Children.
Researchers with the organization used state Medicaid data to determine that 5.7 percent of girls between 13 and 17 in the foster system became pregnant compared with 1.2 percent of other Texas girls in the same age group in 2015, the latest data available. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which oversees the foster care system, started publishing in 2016 the number of foster youth who are pregnant each year, but the agency does not track the rate.
A large contributor to the high rate of pregnancies is the trauma associated with being a foster child, said Kate Murphy, a Texans Care for Children policy analyst, adding that state officials as well as medical providers and caregivers can do more to educate foster youth on reproductive health, the importance of delaying pregnancy and building healthy relationships.
“A lot of pregnancies for youth in foster care are not necessarily unplanned. They’re actually desired. A lot of kids want to feel loved and a part of what’s contributing to the higher rate is wanting the love in a family,” Murphy said.
In 2017, the Department of Family and Protective Services reported that 332 foster care youth were pregnant and 218 were mothers or fathers; figures were similar in 2016. The state foster care system served 50,293 children and teens in 2017.
Murphy estimates the pregnancy rate among foster care youth last year was about 6 percent.
The overall teen pregnancy rate in Texas is among the highest in the nation — the state ranked 47th in preventing teen pregnancies in 2016 based on the number of births per 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
“Pregnancy might affect (foster teens’) ability to finish their education. It might affect their employment opportunities and lead to poverty. It might often affect their health and their child’s health. We know that later, twice as many of their children come into foster care than children of other teenage parents,” Murphy said.
In addition to bringing down the pregnancy rate, the study’s researchers said that policymakers should focus on ensuring pregnant foster teens, who are typically covered under Medicaid, have proper prenatal and postpartum health care. According to 2016 data, 60 percent of pregnant foster teens started prenatal care in the first trimester compared with 87 percent of pregnant teens and women enrolled in other Medicaid programs. That same year, foster youth were 30 percent more likely to have a baby born too small compared with pregnant teens and adults in other Medicaid programs.
Collecting better data, improving existing programs, improving access to long-acting contraceptives and placing pregnant teens in supportive homes are among ways to address the large number of pregnant foster youth, according to researchers.
Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Lisa Block said agency officials, as well as caregivers and medical providers, constantly work to re-evaluate programs that target pregnant foster teens.
In 2015, a federal judge ruled that a major part of the state’s foster care system was unconstitutional and suggested that, in some cases, children had been better off before they entered the state’s care. The state continues to appeal that ruling but state lawmakers passed legislation last year that aimed to improve the system, including increasing payments to people who foster children who are relatives.
Lawmakers also approved handing over major foster care services from the state to local nonprofits or local governmental entities, including caseworker visits, court-related duties and decision-making on where children live, learn and receive services. That handover hasn’t happened in Central Texas yet.