May 01, 2017

Building a Safety Net for Teen Parents in Foster Care: California’s Approach

Rebecca Harkness, Esq., Sue Abrams, Esq. and Abby Eskin, Esq.

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association. 

We have a 16-year-old and 17-year-old mother and father,” stated a Los Angeles dependency court judge, moments after removing an 18-month-old boy from their custody because of abuse and neglect allegations. Both young parents themselves are in the foster care system. “The Department [of Children and Family Services] needs to make special efforts here to assist this family.”

Supporting Teen Parents in Foster Care

While not a new or uncommon scenario, what those “special efforts” mean is something child welfare agencies have been grappling with for some time. Children born to teen parents, and especially those born to teen parents in foster care, are more likely to spend time in foster care than the general population.1 Over the last several years, there has been an increased focus on better supporting these young families, which has resulting in exciting policy and legislative initiatives. 

For example, now in California a teen parent could receive up to two years of reunification services when certain criteria is met.2 Also, provisions allowing the court to bypass providing a parent reunification services do not apply to teen parents.3 The idea is that with a some compassion and enhanced support, a teen parent who might otherwise lose their child can instead successfully regain and maintain custody. However what is done during this extra reprieve is crucial. Without the right services and support, increased time might not make a difference.

This article shares California’s experience with teen parents in foster care and several strategies it is using to better support them and their children. 

Learning from Brain Science

Science is providing innovative solutions to better assist young parents. It all goes back to the brain, which researchers are understanding better than ever. When a 40-year-old adult makes a big decision, like buying a car on a budget, the adult primarily engages the prefrontal cortex of their brain, which deals in rational decision making. In theory, a rational adult would buy something sensible, like a gently used Toyota. 

But a growing teenage brain, age 18, when faced with the same choice, relies more on the limbic system, which deals in emotions. Hence, the teen may lease an expensive sports car with high payments because that feels good to the 18-year-old brain. That crucial development of the prefrontal cortex—which helps guide the slow transition from emotional decision making to more rational decisions—does not stop until age 25, prompting some child psychologists to propose a new definition of “adolescence” that goes far beyond the legal age of 18.4

Other key areas of the teen brain are different than an adult’s brain. We can remember as teens how great it felt to get paid after mowing the neighbor’s lawn. Pay day just doesn’t seem as exciting as an adult. That’s because the ventral striatum, or reward center of the brain, responds much stronger to rewards in teens, like receiving money or, even, getting high on drugs.5

Attorneys can tailor their advocacy for young parents by having more awareness of how a young parent makes decisions and responds to rewards. Reading the riot act is sometimes effective when representing parents in their 30s and 40s, but a nonjudgmental approach is usually better for young parents who often already feel the system is stacked against them…and in many ways it is. One study found almost half of teen girls who have been in foster care will have had a child by age 19. Of those, many will see their own children detained and placed in foster care.6

Building a Teen Parent’s Support System

Harvard physician researchers recommend adults help teens cope by educating teens about their unique brains and giving them strategies to make good decisions in the moment.7 A good support system surrounding a teen can help them make better decisions. Finding out as much about a young parent’s circumstances is important, including who his or her support system is, and engaging that support system in the parent’s case plan. 

Teen parents face many legal obstacles to supporting their children’s physical and emotional needs when compared to adult parents, including restrictions on their ability to enter contracts, have full-time employment and even drive. For teen parents in the foster care system, the barriers are often multiplied when compared to their peers including unstable housing, resources, and supports, and resistance from social workers, judges and even lawyers involved with their case. Access to strong support system can help a teen parent overcome some of these parenting challenges and can prove crucial to preventing removal or reunifying a young family in foster care.

Finding the right support system can prove especially difficult for parenting foster youth, who often move from placement to placement without strong role models or adult connections. Some promising approaches are emerging to fill this gap.

Whole Family Foster Homes

One approach California is creating is a new placement option for pregnant and parenting foster youth—whole family foster homes. Relative and foster caregivers are specially trained and provided increased funding to help minor parents care for their children. In addition, whole family foster homes are eligible for a $200 monthly stipend upon developing a “Shared Responsibility Plan” between the youth, caregiver and social worker. The plan details such items as who is responsible for feeding the baby in the morning before the teen goes to school, what the child care plan will be for the baby during the day, sleeping arrangements, transportation plans, etc. The intent of the whole family foster home is that a foster parent will become a true mentor to the parenting teen and will help the teen develop the skills to provide a safe, stable, and permanent home for his or her child/ren. 

Pregnant and Parenting Teen Conferences

Another strategy being used to support parenting teens in foster care are Pregnant and Parenting Teen (“PPT”) conferences. These voluntary meetings are facilitated by specialized social workers, who use a youth-centered approach to identify and discuss issues related to pregnancy and the early stages of child-rearing, including the teen’s educational needs, linkage with social services for financial support, and the eventual independent living plan for the teen and his or her new baby. PPT conferences aim to break intergenerational cycles of foster care by creating and executing a plan that will provide stability and support for the teen and his or her baby.  

It is critical that attorneys are aware of services available in their jurisdictions, like PPT conferences and whole family foster homes, and that they ask the judge to order them, and follow up. As the California Court of Appeal has said, what may seem like a short reunification period to an adult can be a lifetime to a young child. Childhood does not wait for parents to become adequate.8 Taking proactive steps to ensure teen parents have adequate resources and support ultimately preserves and strengthens these vulnerable families.


Rebecca Harkness, Esq., is an attorney with the Office of the County Counsel County of Los Angeles.

Sue Abrams, Esq., is a policy director at the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles.

Abby Eskin, Esq., is a supervising attorney at the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles.



1. Goer, Robert M. et al. Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs & Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy, 2008; Putnam-Hornstein, Emily et al. Pregnancy, Parenting, and Intergenerational Maltreatment: A Population-based Examination of Youth Involved with Child Protective Services, 2013.

2. Senate Bill 68 (2015), amending California Welfare and Institutions Code §§ 366.21 & 366.22.

3. Assembly Bill 260 (2015), adding California Welfare and Institutions Code §§ 361.8 & 825.5, amending § 16002.5.

4. Wallis, Lucy. “Is 25 the New Cut-Off Point for Adulthood?BBC News Magazine, September 23, 2013. 

5. Barkley-Levensona, Emily and Adriana Galván. Neural Representation of Expected Value in the Adolescent Brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2014.

6. Putnam-Hornstein et al., 2013.

7. Scott Edwards. “Deciphering the Teenage Brain.” On The Brain, Spring 2010.

8. In re Marilyn H., 5 Cal. 4th 295 (1993).