Teen birth rates in the United States have declined in recent years. Adolescent girls with a history of child welfare involvement, however, continue to experience heightened rates of teenage pregnancy and next-generation child protection involvement relative to adolescents with no history of child welfare involvement. These risks may be particularly acute among older adolescents in foster care given the history of maltreatment and challenges with achieving permanency before ageing out of the system.
Recent federal legislation now provides states with funding to extend foster care through age 21, offering a critical window in which maltreated adolescents may receive targeted services related to both pregnancy prevention and parenting. Yet there are limited data available to track current or changing birth rates in the wake of this notable policy shift. This brief report presents an analysis of California county variations in cumulative birth rates during the period before the formal extension of foster care. The objective was to generated data that would provide a descriptive foundation for assessing the potential impact of this policy change in a state defined by a diverse, county-administered child welfare system.
To generate findings, child protection records were used to identify all girls in out-of-home care at age 17 from 2003-2007. These records were then probabilistically matched with vital birth records from 2001 to 2011 to identify all first births that occurred before age 21. Birth rate variations were examined by county and race/ethnicity.
Timing of Births: Statewide, 20,222 17-year-old girls were in foster care between 2003 and 2007. A total of 35.2% had given birth at least once before the age of 21. Approximately two-thirds of first births by age 21 occurred after 18, when youth would have historically aged out of foster care. Although future research is needed to better understand how youth may be differentially selecting into extended foster care, data from the present brief suggest that there is a window in which intentional efforts could be made to delay first births.
Variations by County: In a sub-analysis of 28 California counties, first births before age 18 ranged from 7% to 17%, while births by the age of 21 ranged from a low of 29% to 46%. Statewide, the rate of first births by age 21 across race/ethnicity was highest among Hispanic youth (43.1%), followed by White (33.0%) and Black (29.4%) youth. The sub-analysis found that cumulative birth rates by age 21 for Hispanic youth varied from 30%-50%, while rates among Black and White youth ranged from 20% to 48% and 14% to 41%, respectively.
Child Welfare Services: The extension of foster care through age 21 means that in any given year, the child welfare system will likely have more dependent adolescents and youth adults who are parenting than it has ever had in the past. Housing, child care resources, and other transitional supports may need to be reconsidered and reorganized to reflect changing demographics.
Parenting Supports: Young and first-time mothers may be more amendable to engaging in parenting programs and other services because they are less familiar with pregnancy, labor, delivery, and care. The extension of foster care through age 21 means that a vulnerable population of young, first-time mothers can be easily identified and targeted for services that enhance parenting capacity in an effort to improve next-generation outcomes. This is particularly salient given recent research from California indicating that children born to adolescents who were themselves maltreated face a risk of abuse and neglect that is three times that of children born to demographically similar adolescents who were not maltreated.