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The Toll of Foster Care

Kathleen Reeves

Carrying the burden of childhood abuse and neglect, these girls and women present a greater, specific challenge to those who work to prevent teen pregnancy.

Foster kids are more likely to become young mothers, a new study finds. The University of Chicago study found that almost half of all girls who had been in foster care became pregnant by the age of 19. The study also found a high rate of multiple pregnancies in a girl’s teenage years.

The article explores the idea that this trend represents a different kind of teen pregnancy: one that is not necessarily unplanned. Daisy Rodriguez, who had her first child at 19 and is now, at 23, a single mother of two, says, “It’s this need of wanting a family, a longing to have somebody as family…There’s just this numbness of being alone in the world.” And Tashayla Jackson-Shelton, who lived in ten foster homes before she was 18, claims that she stopped using birth control when she “aged out” of the foster system because:

“…you feel free for the first time…And some of us (foster kids) come from not-so-healthy families. You just want someone to love.”

Jackson-Shelton claims that she learned how to prevent pregnancy in middle school and at the group home where she spent some of her teenage years. And the program director of San Antonio’s Baptist Child & Family Services Preparation for Adult Living Youth Center, which seeks to assist the transition from foster care to adult life, says,

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Within a year of aging out, they’re pregnant. It’s not that they don’t have information about how to get birth control. I think, from what I’ve heard from them, it’s more about wanting a sense of belonging, a sense of family.

The author of the University of Chicago study, Amy Dworsky, points to a number of conditions that contribute to this high pregnancy rate, including childhood trauma; the desire to be the kind of loving parent they didn’t have; and “a lack of hope.”

The sense that sex education is not working among these young women should not lead us to throw up our hands. Carrying the burden of childhood abuse and neglect, these girls and women present a greater, specific challenge to those who work to prevent teen pregnancy. Lack of love in childhood is difficult, if not impossible, to get past, and so the prevention of teen pregnancy requires not only education, information, and resources, but also counseling and psychological care. Perhaps the most immediate way to address these women’s “lack of hope” is to help them build a future for themselves by giving them access to education and internship programs—by allowing them a glimpse of the world, and of their possible place in it.

Andrea Kane, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, points out,


The child welfare system is very crisis-driven…There hasn’t been a big focus on prevention. Once a person in care has a child, supports kick in, as they should. But very little has been done on the front end.

Prevention, in this case, isn’t just education and birth control pills. With former foster children, we have to acknowledge the tremendous psychological damage possible in a foster childhood and to try to rebuild the self-worth of these young women. And, indeed, foster youth aren’t the only ones getting pregnant out of a quest for love—loneliness and low self-esteem are factors in many teen pregnancies. So, in many cases, sex education needs to fuse information and contraceptive access with emotional education, so that young women want to make healthy decisions.