Five Answers That Will Change the Future
Karen Worthington, JD, is a consultant and author focusing on system-involved children. Her most recent work on girls in the child welfare system is Responding to the Needs of Adolescent Girls in Foster Care, co-authored with Karen Baynes-Dunning and published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy. Karen Worthington can be reached through her website.
In my research on girls in the child welfare system, I am most surprised by the information that does not exist. Among the “missing data” are five pieces of information that could forever improve long-term outcomes for child maltreatment victims.
What could be so powerful?
The answers to five questions:
- How many girls involved with the child welfare system get pregnant?
- How many of those girls give birth?
- What happens to their babies during the remainder of the girls’ child welfare system involvement?
- How many girls move from the child welfare system into the juvenile justice system?
- How many girls involved with the child welfare system are involved with the juvenile justice system either before or during their involvement with the child welfare system?
How will the answers change the future?
The power is in knowing that the answers are not just numbers. The numbers tell a story. The story has characters. The characters are real girls who have survived terrible traumas. The numbers are a mystery to be solved by asking, “Why?”
Asking and honestly answering these questions illuminates missed opportunities. Opportunities to prevent pregnancy, promote healthy birth outcomes, and prevent a second generation from entering foster care. Opportunities to address underlying trauma rather than treating symptoms and behaviors. Opportunities to promote healthy, positive relationships; develop resiliency; and prevent criminal behavior.
The answers to “Why?” provide the context and the road map for taking advantage of these opportunities. Asking, “What happened to you?” unveils the circumstances surrounding girls’ pregnancies or juvenile justice system involvement, including societal and systemic factors that contribute to these outcomes.
Why these questions?
Among girls in foster care, those who are pregnant or parenting and those who are involved with the juvenile justice system are at higher risk for long-term negative outcomes. Benefits of addressing the needs of these two groups of girl include reductions in:
- The number of infants entering foster care;
- Homelessness and poverty among girls who age out of foster care;
- Delinquent behavior among girls in foster care;
- Future victimization of these girls and their children.
Girls in the child welfare system are at extremely high risk of early pregnancy. The rate of pregnancy before age 21 is three times greater for girls in foster care than for girls in the general population and repeat pregnancies are more common for these girls. The Midwest Evaluation study of young adults who were formerly in foster care found that by age 21, 71% of the young women had been pregnant and over half were living with their young children. Existing data indicate that early motherhood greatly increases the likelihood that girls in foster care will not complete high school, and after exiting foster care will be homeless. Parenthood by youth in care can also increase the foster care population, as many of the babies are brought into foster care—either routinely or based on specific findings of maltreatment. Despite these facts, no one tracks how many girls in the child welfare system become pregnant.
Girls’ involvement with the child welfare system increases their risk of juvenile justice system involvement. This has not yet been studied in depth, but available data indicate that girls in child welfare systems are more likely than boys to cross over into the juvenile justice system. Also, there is a larger proportion of girls in the crossover population than in the general delinquency population: between 20‒35% of the general delinquency population are girls, yet they represent 33‒50% of the crossover population. Given these numbers, it is surprising that systems don’t yet routinely track how many girls are discharged from foster care into juvenile justice systems and how many girls are concurrently involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
How will the answers transform the future?
The first step toward change is awareness. Right now no one knows how many girls in the child welfare system are pregnant, parenting, or also in the juvenile justice system. No one knows how many girls are “discharged” from foster care into a juvenile justice setting. Asking and answering these questions reveals much about how our child welfare system is helping or harming girls who have been traumatized. As these questions become routine, the answers will improve.