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Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, Pregnancy and Parenting Among Youths in Foster Care

September, 1997

Research indicates that youths in foster care are at high risk of engaging in early, unprotected sexual activity and experimenting with alcohol and other drugs, thereby increasing their risk for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. These youths however, often lack access to sexuality education, if they are sexually active, to family planning services designed to give them the capacity to delay pregnancy and life option programs planned to motivate them to delay pregnancy.

Who Are the Children in Foster Care, and How Do They Enter the System?

Children and youth who enter the child welfare system have experienced lives fraught with instability, abuse and neglect. In 1993, the most recent year for which national data are available, 449,000 children and youths were in foster care in the United States. This represents a 61 % increase from 1984, when the total was 246,000 children.1

According to the American Public Welfare Association's 1990 study of children entering care:
  • 50.2% (123,000) entered care through protective services because of abuse or neglect;

  • 20.9% (50,700) entered care because of parental condition or absence (illness, death, handicap, or financial hardship);

  • 12.5% (30,600) entered care because of parent/child relationship problems due to family interaction problems, an adoption plan or subsidized adoption, deinstitutionalization, or unwed motherhood;

  • 11.3%(27,700) entered care because of status and delinquency offenses;

  • 1.9% (4,700) entered care because of the child's disabilities or handicaps; and

  • 0.8% (2,000) entered care because their parents had relinquished their parental rights.2

Sexual Activity Among Youths in Foster Care

The few studies that exist on sexual activity rates for youths in foster care place these youths at higher than average risk of engaging in premarital sexual activity.

In one major study on sexual activity among youths in foster care, it reported that 41.1% had had intercourse, 40.5% were recently sexually active, and 56.8% had intercourse while in the current family foster home.3

In a 1992 survey, 86% of all teens age 15 and older in the custody of the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitate Services reported that they were sexually active.4

Similarly in a more recent study among Maryland adolescents in foster care in Maryland, it was reported that 34% of the 846 children admitted being sexually active. They had a mean age of 14.3 years.5 In contrast to youths not in foster care, more than half of teenagers are virgins until they are at least 17.6

Contraceptive Use Among Youths in Out-Of-Home Care

Youths in out-of-home care are more sexually active, yet use contraceptives less frequently than other youths not in care.

In Polit's study, approximately two-third of the sexually active teens in foster care had not used contraceptives at first intercourse, and 54.8% had not used them at their most recent intercourse.7

Similarly in Vermont, it was reported that of the sexually active teens in foster care, only 38% reported using any type of contraceptive regularly.8

Pregnancy Among Youths in Foster Care

Only eight states and the District of Columbia maintain data on the number of girls who become pregnant while in care.9 Surveys of youth formerly in care reveal that many become pregnant or father children within one year of leaving care.

In Westat's pioneering survey of the characteristics of youths leaving family foster care and other forms of out-of-home care found that 17% of the girls surveyed had been pregnant at least once by the time of their discharge from out-of-home care.10

Similarly, in Barth's 1990 survey of youths formally in foster care found that 40% reported having been pregnant since leaving foster care.11 Only 25% of the general female population in the same age group age 18 to 24-had given birth.12

In another study by Westat, 42% of the youths responding had either given birth to or fathered a child.13

* Foster care refers to family foster care, group homes and residential care.


(1) Tatara, T. (1994, October) Characteristics of children in substitute and adoptive care. Washington, DC American Public Welfare Association, Voluntary Cooperative Information System.
(2) Tatara, T. (1992) Characteristics of children on substitute and adoptive care: A statistical summary of the VCIS national child welfare database. Washington, DC: American Public Welfare Association.
(3) Polit, D.F., Morton, T.D.,White, C.M. (1989). Sex, contraception and pregnancy among adolescents in foster care. Family planning perspectures, 21, 203-208.
(4) Vermont Sexuality Manual, (forthcoming) CWLA: Washington DC.
(5) Risley - Curtis, C. (1997) Sexual activity and contraceptice use among children entering out-of-home care child welfare, 76 (July/August, 1997).
(6) Forest, 1993; Sonenstein, Pleck and Ku, 1989; US Bureau of the Census, 1989.
(7) Polit, 1989.
(8) Vermont Sexuality Manual.
(9) Mayden, B. (1996). Sexuality Education for Youths in Care: A state by state survey. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.
(10) Westat, Inc. (1991). A national evaluation of Title IV-E foster care independent living programs for youths. Rockville: author.
(11) Barth R. (1990). On Their Own: The experience of youths after foster care. Child and Adolescent Social Work, 7, 426.
(12) Westat, Inc. (1991).
(13) Westat, Inc. (1991).

For additional information, contact Lupe Hittle, Director, Florence Crittenton Division, 202-942-0293,

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