Last Sunday, there was a group of mothers who weren’t treated to a fancy brunch buffet, or even breakfast in bed. Instead, they struggled to care for their children, against all odds. These are young mothers in our foster care system.
One such young mother is named Sara. She was raised by her mentally ill grandmother, who emotionally and physically abused her. When her grandmother died, Sara’s life became even worse and she entered into a period of homelessness for the next two years. To numb her pain and fear, Sara turned to drugs and alcohol.
Finally, the foster care system stepped in at age 14. Soon after, Sara became pregnant and at age 15 gave birth to her son.
Now 18 years old, Sara is a wonderful young woman who wants a better life for herself and her child. Unfortunately, the odds are not in her favor. Like other young parents in foster care, she is less likely to complete high school and dramatically more likely to raise her child in poverty than a non-foster youth of the same age.
Worst of all, her child is five times more likely to be removed from her custody and enter the foster care system, thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of foster care.
Sobering statistics such as these motivated California State Senator Leland Yee to author Senate Bill 528, which would end California’s era of neglect towards young parents in foster care and replace it a practical approach that reduces unintended pregnancy and prevents child abuse, all while drawing down new federal funding.
SB 528 would provide age-appropriate reproductive health education to reduce the alarming rate of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases among youth in foster care. When a youth becomes pregnant, it would require the child welfare system to refer them to existing resources, such as the federally-funded Nurse Family Partnership. Finally, it would prevent youth from dropping out of high school by ensuring they have access to affordable child care.
California isn’t alone in waking up to the reality of vulnerable young parents like Sara. For the first time ever, President Obama included $12 million in funding for pregnancy prevention among youth in foster care in his proposed FY 2014 budget, funds that California can use to implement SB 528.
SB 528 has made its way through the Senate’s policy committees with overwhelming support, from both Democrats and Republicans. Now, however, comes the hard part, as it is heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will evaluate whether or not the proposal is worth its price tag.
We know how much it will cost to do nothing. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, California will spend $25 million annually on the young parents currently in foster care. These costs include increased state Medicaid costs, child welfare costs, incarceration and lost revenue due to lower taxes paid by the children of teen mothers over their own adult lifetimes as a result of lower education and earnings.
What is not included in that hefty price tag, however, is the lingering effect of abuse and neglect suffered by generations of children to come.
Next Mother’s Day, as we honor all that our own mothers have done for us, let’s not forget the young mothers in foster care, such as Sara, who together with their children have lived in the shadows long enough.
*Name has been changed
Amy Lemley is Policy Director for the Oakland, Calif.-based John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes.
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