Without the guidance of consistent adult role models, teenagers in the foster care system sometimes feel as though they lack opportunities to form their own positive identities. “You don’t really have an identity in foster care because you move around so much. And if you’re not sure of who you are, you don’t make good decisions,” former foster youth and teen mother Miranda Sheffield told TIME. Defined by their interactions with the child welfare system, the teenagers in foster care are often reduced to numbers and statistics as they are managed by well-meaning but overworked social workers. Even the small percentage of foster youths who go on to pursue higher education are likely to continue to define themselves by their interaction with the child welfare system. Miranda, for example, now advocates for foster youth on Capitol Hill. The article that quotes her ends cheerily, “it turns out that there is life after foster care,” which seems like an ill-fitting ending to a piece about a woman who continues to work for the system that she lived within for the majority of her life. And Miranda’s success story is, unfortunately, a rarity. Most youths in foster care want to get a four-year degree, but less than 10% ever attend university. Of that 10%, most do not graduate. Many that “age out” of the child welfare system on their eighteenth birthday continue to engage with the state for the rest of their lives. Many former foster youths become homeless, unemployed, or incarcerated in the years after they turn 18, have children that will go on to be foster youth, or choose a career path based on their experiences in the child welfare system, perpetuating an identity that is based on a relationship to the state.
Foster youth are, of course, not a monolithic group that share universal experiences or behaviors. However, there are some statistically significant ways in which their experiences and behaviors differ from those outside of the system. Teenagers in the child welfare system tend to be more sexually active than their peers outside of foster care, and generally become sexually active at earlier ages. According to Time, almost half of the roughly 500,000 youths in foster care had been sexually active before their sixteenth birthday, compared to only 30% of youths outside of foster care (Sullivan, 2009). That, coupled with inadequate or nonexistent sexual education from foster parents and social workers, leaves teens in foster care more likely to have unprotected consensual sex than their peers.
Beyond the early consensual sexual encounters that females in the foster care system have, they are also more likely to be victims of sexual violence than females outside of the child welfare system or boys within the system. In addition to the daily struggles of school and life as a teenager, “[…] these girls’ lives usually include histories of abuse or neglect; unstable, dangerous, or non-existent family environments; interpersonal violence; sexual victimization; frequent moves; inconsistent school attendance; lack of control over decisions affecting daily life; limited financial resources; and unmet physical, developmental, and mental health needs. These risk factors increase the probability that girls will suffer harm” (Baynes-Dunning, 2013). So much effort goes into placing children into adequate housing as quickly as possible that there is little time to engage with youths and address the various traumas they may have suffered, leaving them without strategies to cope effectively. Furthermore, there is generally inadequate follow-up. Females in foster care are often subject to revictimization at the hands of their foster families, and since there is rarely time to address their trauma, they may have trouble recognizing warning signs of abuse or mistaking abuse for normal attention and affection. As a result, they are significantly more likely to be victims of sexual violence as compared to their male peers. For females in foster care, 72% of the violent crimes that they reported themselves as victims of to law enforcement were sexual in nature. For males, 24% of violent crimes that were reported to law enforcement were sexual assault (Bayes-Dunning, 2013). These statistics, alongside the statistics demonstrating earlier engagement in consensual encounters, show why females in foster care are significantly more likely to become pregnant by the age of 19 and have higher reported instances of multiple pregnancies before the age of 20 (Sullivan, 2009). Those children are five times as likely as their peers to become a part of the child welfare system at some point in their lives (Bayes-Dunning, 2017).
Effectively, by ignoring teenage sexuality, the state creates a situation in which women and their children become intergenerationally dependent on it. This is because the state is inherently masculine. This is not even necessarily intentional. As Wendy Brown wrote in States of Injury, “the state can be masculinist without intentionally or overtly pursuing the interests of men precisely because the multiple dimensions of socially constructed masculinity have historically shaped the multiple modes of power circulating through the domain called the state” (Brown). We see the effects of this in the foster care system. Very little resources are allocated towards sexual education or contraception for foster youths. One can imagine that this is because sex is not as high-risk a behavior for young men as it is for young women. Both men and women risk sexually transmitted diseases from being sexually active without proper protection, but only women are at risk of becoming pregnant.
Even when the potential of sexual violence is addressed, it is masculinist in nature; children are sometimes taken from their otherwise capable parents simply because the mother has been identified as a sex worker (Global Network of Sex Work Projects). This is masculinist as it “protects” the child from sexuality that is disapproved of by society even if it is not inherently dangerous. “Historically, the argument that women require protection by and from men has been critical in legitimizing women’s exclusion from some spheres of human endeavor and confinement within others” (Brown). The masculinist state has created a world where mothers need to have money in order to take care of their children so that they are not taken away, but with the stipulation that there are many types of “wrong” work that will still result in having their children taken away. In this way, mothers are punished simply for being certain types of mothers- poor, lower class, or women of color. Does it not seem a little suspicious that, in protecting children from the strange men that their mothers are sexually engaging with, the children are often placed into homes with different strange men? The difference, of course, is that these strange men are state-sanctioned and approved to “protect” the child. The mother is not considered trustworthy enough by the state to make decisions about which men to potentially expose her child to because the state assumes that those men may be dangerous. In turn, they punish the woman for having sexual behavior outside of the norm and exclude her from motherhood by separating her from her child. While this is one extreme example, it is not as uncommon as one would like to think, and serves to prove that the state and the child welfare system seems to only engage with preventing risky sexual behaviors when it works towards punishing women, but not when it would prevent disease, trauma and pregnancy in teen girls.
This line of thought makes one wonder if the state even wants to prevent teen pregnancy for foster youths. Is there any motivation to prevent foster youths from getting pregnant and remaining reliant on the system? Wendy Brown would argue that there is not, since the woman’s relationship to the state has defined her and produced her into something familiar that the state is capable of maintaining. Destitute, pregnant women and single mothers are reliant and easy to control. The continued and growing relationship between women, especially poor women and women of color, serves to tie their identities to the state in a way that is tangible and comprehensible to the masculine powers-that-be. “Do these expanding relationships produce only active political subjects, or do they also produce regulated, subordinated, and disciplined state subjects? (…) Are state programs eroding or intensifying the isolation of women in reproductive work and the ghettoization of women in service work?” (Brown). As we saw with Miranda, the previously mentioned former foster youth and teen mother, even when these women go on to successfully exit the child welfare system, they do not necessarily disengage it. In working with foster youths in the past, many of the girls that expressed interest in higher education specified that they intended to become social workers or advocates for foster care. While there are no reliable statistics about the work that successful women who aged out of foster care do, it seems that many of them go on to work for the same system that produced them, perpetuating the cycle in a different but no less meaningful way than the girls that become pregnant while in foster care.
Luckily, there is potential for positive change in the California foster care system. Jessica Chandler, a former foster youth pursuing her masters in social work penned an op-ed titled “Breaking the vicious cycle of foster care” for the LA Times, supporting the passage of California State Bill 528 in 2013. The bill, which has since passed, requires increased pregnancy prevention education for young women in foster care. Politically engaged women produced by the state actually managed to play a part in changing it in a way that may actually benefit future generations of girls in foster care. Though Wendy Brown would argue that there is no sense in feminists attempting to better oppressive state programs, there is unfortunately no practical way to immediately disengage all of the nearly 500,000 children, 48% of them female, from the child welfare system. While imagining a utopian future in which children never legitimately need to be removed from their parents, we must also continue to deal with the reality that some children need to be protected from abuse. Until we create a society in which children are inherently safe from harm, we must continue to attempt to improve and demasculinize the systems in place that hundreds of thousands of children currently rely on. As Audre Lorde famously wrote, “experience has taught us that action in the now is also necessary, always. Our children cannot dream unless they live, they cannot live unless they are nourished, and who else will feed them the real food without which their dreams will be no different from ours?” (Lorde, 1982). To begin to break the cycle of foster care, we must attend to the needs of the children, girls, and women reliant on it and ensure that they are nourished, inside and out, and able to create an identity outside of the foster care system.
Baynes-Dunning, Karen, and Karen Worthington. “Responding to the Needs of Adolescent Girls in Foster Care.” Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy XX.2 (2013): n. pag. Web.
Brown, Wendy. States of injury: power and freedom in late modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U Press, 1995. Print.
Chandler, Jessica. “Breaking the vicious cycle of foster care.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 05 May 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.
“Sex Work and Arbitrary Interference With Families.” The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers 7 (n.d.): n. pag. Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Web.
Sullivan, Amy. “Teen Pregnancy: An Epidemic in Foster Care.” Time. Time Inc., 22 July 2009. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.