chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Breaking the Foster Care Cycle, One Young Family at a Time

Jody Michele Leibman and Kaveh Landsverk


  • There is a disproportionate number of youth who become pregnant while in foster care as compared with youth in the general population.
  • The landmark and bipartisan Family First legislation aims to fundamentally shift the child welfare system by providing evidence-based early interventions to mitigate the circumstances that place a child or a family at risk of entering the foster care system.
  • Our Pre-Filing Representation Project aims to break the cycle of dependency and keep families together by providing young and soon-to-be parents with the resources and support they need to thrive; over the long term, the goal is to stop the generational cycle of families entering the foster care system.
Breaking the Foster Care Cycle, One Young Family at a Time
Imagesbybarbara via Getty Images

Unfortunately the article was published with an incorrect number, conflating two data sets. Of the young families served, five children have been removed and the families are working toward reunification.


Brittany (whose name has been changed for this article to protect confidentiality) entered the child welfare system at age 15, having suffered the trauma of physical abuse and commercial sexual exploitation. Two years later, she became pregnant, and in the fall of 2020, she gave birth to a healthy son.

After Brittany was referred by her dependency attorney to the newly formed Pre-Filing Representation Project team at the Children’s Law Center of California (CLC), it was soon discovered that she had signed an agreement with the local child welfare agency, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), to voluntarily open a case on her son at the hospital shortly after her delivery—all without the knowledge of Brittany’s attorney. Unfortunately, it is common practice for a “risk assessment” to be conducted moments after a youth has given birth, solely because the youth is in foster care. In Brittany’s case, not only did she have little memory of signing the agreement—let alone its terms—she did not even have a copy of the document in her possession.

CLC’s team moved quickly to obtain a copy of the agreement; time was of the essence as Brittany’s failure to meet its terms could trigger the filing of a petition to remove her son from her custody. The agreement included no fewer than 25 “service objectives” that Brittany was required to complete within six months. The requirements ranged from maintaining stable housing to developing positive support systems with family. Most of the terms were unrelated to child safety and vaguely defined, with little recognition of how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted her already-challenging circumstances or how the child welfare agency would be supporting Brittany in achieving the objectives. CLC’s team moved to quash the agreement in court, citing its violation of both statute and DCFS policy.

In addition, CLC worked with Brittany to ensure she had access to the resources and help she needed to provide a safe and loving home for her child. The Pre-Filing Representation Project team secured basic supplies such as diapers and blankets, aided Brittany in setting up child care and enrolling in parenting support services, encouraged her to keep up with her schoolwork, and communicated with her consistently to address any issues that came up along the way.

The ability of Brittany’s attorney to flag her case for referral to the team was critical to making sure she had the opportunity to learn and grow with her baby. With dependency attorneys in Los Angeles still overwhelmed by caseloads well above recommended standards, this specialized unit made all the difference in supporting Brittany’s parenting journey to give her the chance to succeed that she and every parenting foster youth deserve. Today, Brittany’s family is thriving without the looming threat of court intervention.

The Unique Challenges Faced by Young Parents in Foster Care

While Brittany’s story is a successful one, historically, her experience has been the exception rather than the rule. At the core of this issue is the disproportionate number of youth who become pregnant while in foster care as compared with youth in the general population:

In addition to higher rates of unintended pregnancy, foster youth are at a disproportionate risk of child welfare contact when they become parents:

  • Studies within Los Angeles County have found that a maternal history of maltreatment is the single strongest predictor of allegations of offspring maltreatment by age five.
  • While 10 percent of babies born in California are reported to child protective services by the age of three, a recent study shows that rate jumping to 53 percent of children born to mothers who are in foster care at the time of birth. This percentage climbs to a staggering 68 percent of young mothers in foster care with histories of unstable placements and mental health needs.

Expectant and parenting youth also face the multitude of challenges presented by the imperfect child welfare system, often struggling to access the support and services they need to address their own trauma, let alone to parent their young children. At the same time, these youth demonstrate higher rates of poor outcomes across a range of issues—health, mental health, education, employment, and involvement in the criminal justice system. These challenges are amplified by the often unfair level of scrutiny of parenting while youth are in foster care, where clients are often referred for things that would not place other families at risk of child welfare involvement (co-sleeping as just one example).

For many expectant and parenting youth in foster care, these obstacles prove to be insurmountable and result in a temporary and sometimes permanent removal of their children from their care and custody

A Renewed Focus on Prevention Brings Opportunity for Change 

There was a time in child welfare when it was universally accepted that youth who became pregnant while in foster care would have their babies removed from their custody at birth; indeed, it was presumed that being in the foster care system in and of itself was proof that the parent could not safely care for the baby. While the law has since shifted away from such an unfair assumption—statutory changes in California law in 2005 and 2015 solidified the principle that a child born to a youth in foster care shall not be considered at risk solely due to the parent’s foster care status—implementation at the client level has been rocky at best. As a result, the experience of too many youth in foster care still reflects this outdated and illegal perception.

While CLC had been engaged in advocacy specific to expectant and parenting youth for many years (including leading systemic and legislative reform efforts), the systemic shift toward prevention embodied in (1) the federal Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 and (2) a new opportunity to draw down federal funding for legal services—including funding for youth at risk of entering foster care—inspired CLC to pilot a program that would support our parenting clients and their families in a new way.

At its core, the landmark and bipartisan Family First legislation aims to fundamentally shift the child welfare system by providing evidence-based early interventions to mitigate the circumstances that place a child or a family at risk of entering the foster care system. The bill has been called the most significant reform to federal child welfare policy in decades (indeed, since the establishment of the Title IV-E program in 1980), with an emphasis on the importance of children growing up in families and being placed in the least restrictive setting possible. Family First challenges child welfare systems players across the country to dramatically rethink their approach to protecting children and supporting families. The legislation reforms the federal child welfare financing streams, Title IV-E and Title IV-B of the Social Security Act, to provide dollars for front-end, prevention-focused services aimed at vulnerable populations.

While Family First provides financial support for direct services to children and families not yet a part of the child welfare system, it does not allow these resources to apply to legal services. However, around the same time as the passage of Family First came a critical change to the federal Title IV-E program to now allow a draw-down of reimbursable or matchable funds to also serve this at-risk population; this change includes funding for the provision of pre-filing legal services. This draw-down has not yet been implemented, but CLC and other advocates are hopeful that it will soon become reality. In the meantime, CLC seized on this unique opportunity to provide primary prevention support for this vulnerable population. By harnessing the support of philanthropy, we have begun the process of building our project to connect expectant and parenting youth to critical services now offered to them through Family First. And in coming years, this important work will be sustained through the federal draw-down.

The combination of these legislative changes and the window of opportunity they present led to what is now CLC’s unique and evolving Pre-Filing Representation Project.

CLC’s Program Model

Our Pre-Filing Representation Project aims to break the cycle of dependency and keep families together by providing young and soon-to-be parents with the resources and support they need to thrive; over the long term, the goal is to stop the generational cycle of families entering the foster care system. The need is clear: In reviewing a petition for dependency jurisdiction, CLC attorneys will often see that one or both of our client’s parents have also experienced foster care. Sadly, our client was often removed in the same way from his or her parent as the client’s child is now being removed, and sometimes even from the same placement. And too often, the “support” offered to parenting youth in foster care takes the form of a threat:

 “Enroll in parenting classes now or you will lose your baby.”

 “Get mental health treatment if you want your child returned to you.”

 “You need to choose right now: your abusive partner or your child.”

The project began in January 2020 with the support of the Pritzker Foster Care Initiative, with the goal of tapping into federal resources to grow and ultimately sustain the program’s important objectives. Encouraged by the success of similar programs in other jurisdictions such as Detroit, the Pre-Filing Representation Project works with clients who are referred both by CLC case-carrying attorneys and by DCFS social workers investigating referrals, and sometimes directly by clients who have been contacted by a social worker about their young child. Once a client is referred to our team by her case-carrying attorney, our core team of attorneys and parent support case managers work within a multidisciplinary and holistic approach to help our clients by identifying their strengths, connecting them to needed services, and providing true support—without the attachment of punitive strings.

CLC’s model is fundamentally client-centered: Rather than seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all model of parenting on our clients, the team’s attorneys and case managers begin by getting to know our client, and building rapport with the client, providing a safe space for the client to express fears, needs, and goals. Once that connection has been established, the team carefully develops an individualized case plan and strategy—consisting of both legal and non-legal interventions—tailored to each client. The small number of cases handled within the team allows for a hands-on and intensive case management approach difficult to implement outside of the project.

The team’s advocacy often includes acting as a bridge between our clients and the complex array of social workers, hospital staff, mental health clinicians, and other service providers. Our program creates an individualized supportive network for each client by implementing a three-step approach: First, we help the client navigate preexisting services; second, we connect various stakeholders in the client’s life to facilitate a collaborative “it-takes-a-village” approach (for example, assisting the client in transportation to needed services and providing encouragement to continue participating and making progress); and, third, we creatively build resources where none exist to meet a particular client need.

Our dedicated pre-filing attorney advises clients on their rights as parents, their rights as youth in foster care, and how those legal frameworks interact. Our approach emphasizes client autonomy and volition. We strive to ensure that every one of our young parenting clients is able to assert her own voice in processes that too often fail to take account of it. The team has the time and ability to do things like attend prenatal visits with clients; support clients during DCFS team meetings, including what are termed Expectant and Parenting Youth Conferences and Child and Family Team Meetings; help youth procure needed items like diapers and baby clothes; and collaborate with DCFS to create detailed safety plans the court is likely approve in order to keep clients and their babies together.

As of now, our model consists of an attorney and a parent support case manager; however, the team works collaboratively with CLC issue experts in mental health, immigration, and children who have been commercially sexually exploited, as well as staff such as peer advocates with lived foster care experience and outside service providers. Team members have conversations with clients about family planning and reproductive health issues, including conversations about preventing further pregnancies and setting goals for self-sufficiency. The team also has difficult conversations with youth related to behaviors that have the potential of triggering DCFS involvement—such as unmet mental health needs, unhealthy relationships, or frequently leaving placement—while securing needed services to address the underlying issues related to the behaviors.

Relationships the team has cultivated with DCFS have enabled the team to become aware of, and weigh in on, investigations into our clients and their babies when issues arise. The ability to support our clients in this pre-petition and proactive way, including deescalating the situation in many cases, has proven critical. In some instances, team members attend child welfare agency investigations to support and deescalate the client if needed. Youth struggling with patterns of behavior that will likely trigger a filing are counseled and supported in making a plan with a relative or friend who is willing to care for the baby temporarily without agency intervention.

As of today, the project has served 168 clients. Of those clients served, only three have been separated from their children. With CLC’s support, one of those clients already has her baby back in her care, and the other two are likely to have similarly positive outcomes in the coming weeks. Overall, the team has seen overwhelming success in assisting clients referred to the project. Positive outcomes that have prevented the filing of a petition to separate the family have ranged from stabilizing placements for the youth and baby, obtaining restraining orders on clients’ behalf in domestic violence situations, and ensuring clients’ consistency in attending programs and mental health services.

In one case, a threatened allegation of general neglect was deterred simply by the fact that the client is participating in the Pre-Filing Representation Project—thereby demonstrating that the client has a stable source of support to provide care for her young child.


Fourteen-year-old Sarah (whose name has been changed for this article to protect confidentiality) gave birth to a healthy baby girl in January 2021, with CLC supporting her through her delivery and helping her plan to ensure the stability of her young family once they left the hospital. The day she was supposed to be discharged with her baby, she was visited by a social worker who told her she would not be allowed to leave until “additional tests” had been run. Sarah had only one relative with her at the hospital due to COVID restrictions, and the relative called CLC’s Pre-Filing Representation Project team to notify them about the social worker’s visit. Shortly thereafter, a different social worker arrived and began questioning Sarah about her history as a survivor of commercial sex trafficking. Sarah answered the questions, advising the social worker that she was living safely with family and away from her trafficker, but was understandably terrified that her baby would be taken from her and did not understand why her discharge was being delayed.

Once aware of the situation, CLC’s team immediately began communicating directly with hospital staff to find out what was going on. The team learned that the child welfare agency intended to block Sarah from leaving with her baby because a toxicology report showed a trace amount of marijuana in Sarah’s blood; however, her baby’s toxicology report was clear and showed no trace of anything of concern. The team went to work facilitating communication between hospital personnel, Sarah, and the DCFS regarding her medical and parental rights and options. With the team’s advocacy and support, Sarah was discharged from the hospital and went home with her baby.

After her discharge, the team worked with Sarah to help her better understand the DCFS referral process and what to expect in the days ahead. The team helped her choose a primary pediatrician for her baby so she could make all her appointments, assisted her in requesting a new social worker with whom she could have a more productive relationship, and provided supportive services for Sarah and her family. The team’s certified reproductive health specialist had extensive conversations with Sarah to educate her on her rights and options going forward and to link her to specific medical and reproductive health resources. The child welfare referral was ultimately closed, and Sarah is now successfully parenting her baby at home with the ongoing support of her family and CLC’s Pre-Filing Representation Project team.

A Brighter Future for Young Families in Foster Care

Despite overwhelming odds, with the support of CLC’s Pre-Filing Representation Project team, more expectant and parenting youth in foster care are receiving the support they need to successfully care for their young children without court intervention. To learn more about CLC’s Pre-Filing Representation Project and our other work advocating for foster youth, please visit