For adolescents, becoming a parent presents both challenges and opportunities. Young parents must navigate both the normative developmental tasks of adolescence and adult responsibilities of caring for a child. At the same time, complete their education, and build a better future for themselves and their children.
Access to services and supports is essential for adolescent parents to be successful and their young families to thrive. This is no less true for parenting young people in foster care (hereafter referred to as “in care”). Yet child welfare systems were not designed to provide those young people and their children the services and supports they need.
Focusing on parenting young people in care is important for two reasons. First, they must navigate both the transition to adulthood and parenthood while under the supervision of a system that was not designed to support them in their parenting role. Second, now that more than half of states have extended federally funded foster care to age 21 and other states have established state-funded extended foster care programs, many more parenting young people are in care today than in the past.
This brief describes the development of a learning agenda focused on the needs of parenting young people in care.
Primary Research Questions
We undertook this research to answer three primary questions:
- What do we know about the needs of young parents in care?
- What are the gaps in our knowledge about those needs?
- What questions should we prioritize to address those gaps?
Despite a growing literature on young parents in care, many gaps remain in our knowledge about how best to address their needs. Developing a learning agenda is one way to prioritize the gaps that future research and evaluation activities could begin to fill. This brief presents both a learning agenda and conceptual framework focused on the needs of parenting young people in care.
Key Findings and Highlights
We identified six topics around which to focus a learning agenda on the needs of parenting young people in care.
- Young fathers in care. Child welfare systems have generally not provided young fathers in care with parenting supports. Supporting young fathers in care will require a better understanding of their experiences and needs.
- Specialized training. Most caseworkers and foster parents have not been trained to provide young parents in care with the support they need. Specialized training could help caseworkers and foster parents support parenting young people in care, but additional information is needed about what the content and format of that training should be.
- Child care. Child care is essential for young parents in care to work or go to school, but finding high-quality, affordable child care that meets their needs is challenging. Understanding those challenges could help child welfare systems ensure the child care needs of young parents in care are being addressed.
- Heightened fear. Young parents in care fear being reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) and having their children removed because of their own experiences and constant surveillance by foster parents and child welfare professionals. Addressing this fear is important because it can prevent parenting young people from accessing the supports they need to care for their children.
- Mental health. Young parents in care often lack a natural support system and may be reluctant to seek help for fear of being stigmatized or deemed incapable of caring for their children. Meeting the mental health care service needs of young parents in care will require more information about those needs and the barriers to seeking help.
- Equity and inclusion. Services are not available to all parenting young people in care, and they are frequently excluded when decisions that affect their lives are made. Additional attention to equity and inclusion is needed to ensure all parenting young people in care have access to services and can actively participate in shaping their lives and the lives of their children.
The project team carried out interviews with six program administrators and ten state and county child welfare agency administrators to support the development of a conceptual framework. Once the framework was drafted, we hosted a convening with key stakeholders and young parents with lived experience to revise the framework and develop the learning agenda.