In 2015, Texas had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S., one that has since been slow to go down—but a new report from the Texas Observer shows that the challenges of becoming unexpectedly pregnant are even greater for those in the foster care system, where the state’s religious right has scared adults into not getting teenagers the information or help they need to practice safe sex.
Teenage girls in foster care are almost five times as likely to become pregnant than those who are not in foster care, according to the Observer, and almost 11 percent of teenage girls under the care of the Department of Family and Protective are already pregnant or have become a parent. In many ways, the state’s broken foster care system sets its children up for this, by introducing more instability into their lives, many of whom have already had tumultuous childhoods: the CDC has found that “The more trauma a child has endured, the more likely they are to engage in high-risk sexual behavior,” according to the Observer.
But the state’s religious right makes things even worse for foster care teens navigating being sexually active. The Observer reports that foster care employees are afraid to even talk about sexual health:
Adults in the system who do make sex ed a priority can face repercussions. Six child-welfare professionals described to the Observer a prevailing culture of fear that they could be fired, delicensed, cited or sued for discussing sex or facilitating access to birth control or abortion.
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It’s a fear that extends beyond case workers’ offices and into foster care homes, as the system also leans on religious organizations for help:
Kids, too, don’t know what they can and cannot say, particularly if they are in a religious foster home or facility. Religion plays a big role in the Texas foster care system. Many child-placing agencies have religious affiliations. And in an effort to address the severe shortage of foster care beds, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has urged faith-based organizations to recruit foster and adoptive parents, with a conspicuous focus on Catholics and evangelical Christians.
Crucially, foster care teens, like their peers, may not get many other opportunities to learn about safe sex and birth control outside of the home: a majority of Texas school districts teach abstinence-only sex education, according to a 2017 report which also found that more than a quarter of school districts have no sex education at all. A program called Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) could teach children in the foster care system about sexual health—but it “varies wildly” wherever it’s implemented, according to the Observer; a more rural area may default to religious-based, abstinence-only teachings and never mention birth control.
This failure to educate some of the state’s most vulnerable teens on their own bodies is particularly shameful considering that Texas has already demonstrated it lacks the resources to support children born into unstable homes; after a while, the issue of teen pregnancy in foster care becomes a snake eating its tail. Teenagers having sex is almost inevitable; teen pregnancy, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be. If only the adults in these situations could do something about that.
Read the full report here.