California’s Most Vulnerable Parents: When Maltreated Children have Children


The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has long made its philanthropic charge the support of impactful programs on the ground, advancement of thoughtful public policies, and sponsorship of innovative and applied research with vulnerable populations. Consistent with this vision, the foundation is now working to improve services and outcomes for youths involved with Los Angeles County’s child protective services (CPS) system. This ambitious effort includes funding a range of programs, research, and other activities to identify best practices that can then be shared with other funders and implementers, raising both public and private awareness of the importance of investment, alignment, and collaboration in the field of child welfare.

As an initial step in this agenda, the foundation funded a record-linkage study conducted by the Children’s Data Network at the University of Southern California, in collaboration with the California Child Welfare Indicators Project at the University of California at Berkeley and the California Department of Social Services. This project led to the linkage of CPS and birth records, generating new knowledge concerning teen birth rates among youth currently and formerly placed in foster care and involved with CPS more broadly. This linked database of integrated birth and CPS records is unique in that it not only offers a “population-level” examination of past CPS involvement among teen mothers, but it also provides an opportunity to prospectively examine health and safety outcomes in the next generation.

Through the linkage of these two data sources, we now have a more complete understanding of teen birth and early-parenting dynamics among CPS-involved teens. It is our hope that this new knowledge can be used to inform future investments in programs and the development of policies that serve to: (1) reduce the rate of teen pregnancy and early parenting among CPS-involved youth; (2) improve services for those CPS-involved youth who are pregnant or parenting; and (3) focus enhanced resources toward current and former CPS-involved youth who are now parenting to prevent child maltreatment in the next generation.

Overview of Findings

The population prevalence of past CPS involvement among teen mothers is high. Among girls who gave birth, more than 40% had been reported as victims of maltreatment prior to conception; 20% had confirmed or substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect.

Although only a small percentage of all teens in foster care give birth in any given year (~ 4%), tracking births that occur over time for this population provides a more complete picture of the number youth who are parenting during their teens. Among girls in foster care at age 17, more than 25% had given birth at least once before age 20.

Multi-generational involvement with CPS is not uncommon and a maternal history of victimization is a significant risk factor. Rates of substantiated abuse and neglect among children born to teen mothers with a history of reported or substantiated maltreatment were 2 to more than 3 times higher than the rates of children whose teen mothers had not been reported to CPS.

Repeat teen births are not uncommon. Among girls in foster care who first gave birth before age 18, nearly 40% went on to have a second teen birth.

Maltreatment may have health consequences for in the next generation. Among an already high risk population of teens giving birth, a maternal history of maltreatment victimization was a significant predictor of low birth weight (< 2500g), even after adjusting for smoking and other known risk factors.

Despite large declines in the teen birth rate in California overall, there were no discernible trends observed in the first or repeat birth rates among girls in foster care.

Compared to the general population, girls in foster care have higher rates of teen births. Yet, despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, data from the present study do not necessarily indicate a heightened teen birth rate among adolescents in foster care compared to socioeconomically similar adolescents in the community.


Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles based on Statewide Findings

Coverage and Commentary

“Groundbreaking Report Shows 20 Percent of Teenage Mothers In Los Angeles County are Victims of Abuse, One in Four Teen Girls in Foster Care Give Birth”
Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Press Release, November 2013

“Teen moms abused as children more likely to become abusers themselves”
LA Times, November 2013

“The Spear Tip of Child Maltreatment Prevention”
The Chronicle of Social Change, November 2013

“Study links maternal abuse history to low birth weight”
Reuters Health, July 2013

“Putnam-Hornstein to examine pregnancy among foster youth”
USC News, October 2012

  • Emily Putnam-Hornstein, PhD
    (Principal Investigator)
  • Barbara Needell, PhD
  • Julie Cederbaum, PhD
  • Bryn King, MSW
    (Student Investigator)
Data and Research Partners
  • July 2012 – November 2013
1150 South Olive Street, Suite 1400
Los Angeles, CA 90015
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