A Cost-Benefit Argument for Foster Youth Sex Ed

by Christie Renick

California state legislation aimed at ensuring sex education for foster youths, who represent the greatest risk for teen pregnancy and contracting sexually transmitted diseases, has the potential to reduce California’s public health expenditures in the long run.

If implemented properly, this legislation may save taxpayers millions of dollars in healthcare costs for foster youth related to teen pregnancies and disease treatment. It could also improve the health and lives of thousands of foster youth, and, long-term, help create healthy families by giving foster youth the tools and information they need in order to make informed decisions about becoming parents.

Conversations with foster youth show that they often don’t experience any version of “the sex talk” during adolescence. Their biological parents are unable to provide care at all, much less offer age-appropriate reproductive health information.

Daveion Thompson, a young adult who spent most of his childhood in foster care, said, “No one ever talked to me about sex. I don’t know why not. They just didn’t.”

Such a dearth of reproductive and sexual health education comes at a high price. Researchers have found a high correlation between children born to teen mothers, whose births are often paid for by public funding such as Medi-Cal, and cases reported to child protective services by the time the child turns five.

California is home to a total of about 56,000 foster youth, a little under half of whom are between the ages of 11 and 20. Experts estimate that a single pregnancy without complications (including prenatal care through birth and care immediately thereafter) costs the state between $5,000 and $7,000.

According to research, about 7,500 (30 percent) of foster youth between the ages of 11 and 20 will become pregnant or father an unwanted child while they’re in care. If half of these youth are female, then the research predicts there will be about 3,750 unplanned pregnancies within this population. If each pregnancy costs $5,000, paid for by Medi-Cal, the state can plan to spend about $18,750,000 on unplanned teen pregnancies.

If the State of California is able to partner with organizations to deliver reproductive health education programs and/or training to individuals and agencies who work with foster youth, the state may be able administer reproductive health education for as little as $10 per youth, or a total of about $250,000 annually.

Planned Parenthood estimates that birth control pills cost its clients about $15 per month. If each of those young women in foster care in California (3,750) elects to use birth control, which is paid for by Medi-Cal and costs the State $180 per year, the total cost to the state would be $675,000 annually.

While it’s unlikely that investing in reproductive health and pregnancy prevention among foster youth will wipe out all the Medi-Cal costs associated with foster youth’s pregnancies, the investment may improve adult outcomes for these kids and ultimately improve the State’s bottom line over the long term.

Christie Renick is a graduate student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy and a policy intern with the Children’s Law Center of California. This story was written as part of the Price School’s Media and Social Change course.

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