Becoming A Parent While In Foster Care: Pregnant Teens In DCS Face Many Struggles
Teenage pregnancy has been declining in Arizona over the past few decades. That reflects a national downward trend, but let’s take a look at a specific group: teens in the foster care system.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said girls in foster care are more than twice as likely to become pregnant than their peers. They deal with that reality on top of the challenges of being a foster child. Yet some are preparing to to be parents.
At a baby shower in Ahwatukee, there were the typical games, the pink and blue cupcakes and the gifts. It was a baby shower times six, as a half dozen moms-to-be sat on couches, unpacking baskets of soft stuffed animals and baby blankets.
“I just felt like this was a population in our foster care system that needed help,” said Andi Pettyjohn, treasurer of the Ahwatukee Kiwanis Club.
It was her idea to throw a baby shower for pregnant foster teens. After the celebration, the teens go back to their group homes with their arms full of donated items, from clothes and toys up to the big stuff.
“One of the things that we found was very important to these girls is that they receive an umbrella stroller,” Pettyjohn said of the easily-folding strollers. “The big, fancy strollers are not very practical for them because they don’t have cars. They ride public transportation.”
It’s just one of the limitations that have to be considered for girls like Alexis.
“Well, I’m five months. And it’s a boy,” she said.
She refers to the Department of Child Safety (DCS) by its old name, CPS.
“When I first found out I was pregnant, I was out on the street. I was on the run,” Alexis said. “And I didn’t want to be in CPS, and I was just like, whatever, I don’t care, I could do this by myself.”
She said she worried her son would be removed from her custody, so she returned and now lives in a group home geared toward pregnant teens. And she said that’s been a good thing. She needed so much more than a stroller. She needs services and support.
“Youth who are growing up in care, they really struggle to understand how to advocate for themselves. They’re very institutionalized, so they’re used to, you know, adults making the decisions for them,” said Megan Conrad of Arizona’s Children Association.
She said these girls might not know how to apply for food stamps or subsidized child care, or know what rights they have when it comes to being a parent and also a minor. As of June there were 36 pregnant teens in foster care in Arizona, and 128 who are parenting.
It’s not likely they’ll be placed in a foster home as a means of support.
“We do find that the older the children are, the more challenging it is to have them placed in foster care,” said Vickie Isaac with DCS.
Add a baby to this equation, and it’s even harder to find a home. So Isaac said they work to create a different kind of support system.
“Physical and behavioral healthcare, their educational needs, and a robust support system,” she said. “If we can identify family members that’s obviously optimal, and then bringing around those other systems.”
That’s all in an effort to prevent these teens from becoming an oft-cited statistic. Pregnant teens and teens in foster care are more likely to drop out of school.
Bronwyn Paes is the director of the Teenage Pregnancy Program (TAPP) in the Tempe Union High School District. She showed me the child care rooms on the Compadre High School campus.
“We’re the only district that has comprehensive services to pregnant and parenting teens,” she said.
That means offering services like child care, which Paes said is crucial to keeping parenting teens in school. She said because TAPP is the only program of its kind in the Valley, they get students from all over.
And this gets us back to the limitations like transportation.
“The farther away they come - like they might be in foster care on the west side - how are they going to get here?” Paes said.
Despite the struggles, the girls at the Ahwatukee Kiwanis baby shower point to their babies as the reason they keep pushing forward.
“He’s stubborn inside of me,” Alexis laughed. “I know he’s angry at me, like he’ll give me this really sharp pain, it’ll last for like two seconds. I’m like, oh man what did I do now?”
She said thanks to him, she’s back in school after having dropped out. And she plans to voluntarily stay in the foster care system after she turns 18.