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USC study intersects teen births with foster care in LA County

by Cynthia Monticue
One in four teens in foster care gives birth before age 20, according to the data. (Photo/Polina Sergeeva)
One in four teens in foster care gives birth before age 20, according to the data. (Photo/Polina Sergeeva)

A first-of-its-kind study released on Nov. 12 links birth and child protective services records in Los Angeles County, revealing new insights regarding births to teens involved with the child welfare system.

The new data documented that one in four teens in foster care gives birth before age 20 and as many as 40 percent of these young mothers have a second child during their teen years.

In the county overall, four in 10 teen mothers have been reported as alleged victims of abuse or neglect before pregnancy, and 20 percent have a history of substantiated maltreatment. Rates of abuse and neglect among children born to teens with a history of maltreatment victimization are two to more than three times the rates of children whose teen mothers had no involvement of child protective services.

Authored by USC School of Social Work Assistant Professor Emily Putnam-Hornstein, the study looks at the intersection between teen births, child maltreatment and involvement with the child protection system. Putnam-Hornstein, along with other researchers at USC and the University of California, Berkeley, linked and then analyzed roughly 1.5 million California birth records and 1 million child protective services records, with a second phase of research focusing on the maltreatment risk of children born to adolescent mothers.

“This analysis provides a new population-level understanding of child welfare involvement among teen mothers and their children,” Putnam-Hornstein said. “These data underscore opportunities for targeted prevention as well as the importance of policies that support and enhance the parenting capacity of young mothers.”

The report follows the recent passage of Senate Bill 528, which ensures accurate and comprehensive data collection on pregnant and parenting minor foster youth.

“This pioneering study provides an in-depth look at some of the most vulnerable youth in our society,” said Steven Hilton, chairman, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. “It’s critical that we provide opportunities for these young parents to strengthen their parenting skills and make choices that can have positive effects on their lives and those of their children. With early intervention, we can break the cycle of abuse that impacts maltreated children generation after generation.”

In 2012, California became one of the first states in the nation to extend foster youth status until age 21. Different programs and services will likely be required to adequately respond to the needs and circumstances of nonminor youth who remain in the foster care system, particularly in the area of parenting supports. This report finds that as many as one in three female youth in California may be parenting by the time they exit the foster care system on their 21st birthday.

“These data are a powerful call to action,” said Amy Lemley, policy director of the John Burton Foundation. “For too long, California has ignored the reproductive health needs of youth in foster care. With this information, we can begin the process of developing a coherent statewide approach to address both pregnancy prevention as well as support services for teen parents and their vulnerable children.”

Funded by the Hilton Foundation, the study was also led by Julie Cederbaum of USC and Barbara Needell and Bryn King of UC Berkeley.

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