Ashley Beecham was the youth that her social worker didn’t have to worry about. Beecham was 17 in 2005, academically sound, on sports teams, and on track to graduate.
Until she got pregnant.
With a little boy on the way, Beecham and her social worker had to figure out child care, and if plans for college were still an option. And since Beecham’s foster mother became very ill around the time she found out she was pregnant, she and her other five foster siblings needed a new place to stay.
Beecham took extra classes and graduated a semester early from high school. Considered a “high functioning” youth, she was emancipated from the system early and told she would be okay.
Beecham ended up bouncing from friend’s couch to friend’s couch and eventually working at a grocery store.
“I struggled so much. I had the grades out of high school and all of it was there for me and then it was gone,” said Beecham. “I wanted more for my son. I wanted him to know I could do more than work at a grocery store. And I didn’t want him to feel that he held me back.”
Beecham is part of the 50 percent of girls in foster care who become pregnant by age 19, according a 2009 study by the University of Chicago Chapin Hall. Only 44 percent of the pregnant and parenting foster youth in Illinois had a high school diploma or GED when they exited care, according to the study. Having more than one child was a significant barrier to educational attainment, as each additional child reduced the odds of having a high school diploma or GED by 45 percent.
Beecham worked hard to defy the odds. Attending both a community college and Chico State, she is now 25 and on track to graduate from college soon, with her 7-year-old son cheering her on. California has passed laws in recent years that could make it easier for young parents in foster care to follow in her footsteps.
Assembly Bill 1933, an amendment made in 2012 to an existing law, affords foster youth the right to stay in their elementary or secondary school of origin, helping to ensure they maintain stability.
Assembly Bill 167, passed in 2009, allows youth who are forced to relocate in either 11th or 12th grade to graduate with a reduced amount of credits, so long as they complete all the state graduation requirements and pass the California High School exit exam.
The law that would have helped Beecham the most is Assembly Bill 12, enacted in January of this year, which extends foster care until the age of 21 in California. She and her son Jordan would have been given more services and guidance for much longer.
Experts say the longing for unconditional love and attention is often what makes youth in care more susceptible to teen pregnancy than their peers. And parenting while in school is a significant barrier to education, a barrier that states and advocates need to help youth work through.
“I really do believe it’s a crucial place to intervene and stop this cycle,” said Barbara Facher, a social worker with the California-based Alliance of Children’s Rights.
Facher was a presenter at the 2012 fifth-annual Cradle to College & Career Foster Youth Education Summit, sponsored by the California Foster Youth Education Task Force. Because of a number of laws passed after Beecham left care, there is now more support for parenting youth in California to finish their education.
As a current education liaison for Glenn County Foster Youth Servies, Beecham is able to help make girls in similar situations to her own aware of the rights under these new laws. Four of the 65 youths on Beecham’s caseload are parents. She meets with each youth and develops a plan for childcare, staying on course to graduate from high school, and ways to keep their adolescents while being a teen parent.
“I am working with my parenting teens so they don’t have to go through what I had to go through,” Beecham said.
Ryann Blackshere is a multimedia journalist with Fostering Media Connections.