2023 Topical Reporting: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Identity, Small Newsroom finalist

High Stakes, Silent Systems: A Rare Investigation into How States Handle the Reproductive Rights of Foster Youth

About the Project

Throughout May, The Imprint published a multi-part investigative series on sexual and reproductive rights in foster care. The series is a first-ever, 50-state analysis of child welfare agency policies for sex education, birth control, abortion and related issues. This project required careful review of tens of thousands of pages of state statutes and agency handbooks, regulations and court rulings. Interviews with dozens of current or former foster youth, experts, officials and legal advocates informed the piece. Many spoke anonymously due to fears of reprisal or other negative consequences for publicly addressing topics that remain taboo in the child welfare field.

Part I revealed that dozens of state child welfare agencies lack any explicit policies on these topics, despite decades-old recognition of foster youths’ heightened needs, and widespread confusion over their reproductive health care rights while in state custody. Vulnerable youth who spoke to The Imprint described wrenching personal experience navigating adolescence and becoming pregnant without crucial information, and being deprived of or pressured into taking birth control by foster care providers.

“I wasn’t taught about sex growing up in foster care, and I didn’t know to ask — you’re kind of just doing what you think people want you to do, so you have a place to stay,” said Phillisha Kimbles, a former foster youth in California.

“Nobody listened to us, so I stopped talking about the issues I was going through,” said 25-year-old Rebekka Behr of Florida.

“We need real support,” said 17-year-old Mya’h Blunt, who just left foster care in Georgia. “Real people who are willing to help, and not for a paycheck or a name.”

Part II revealed that some state child welfare agencies do have written policies covering abortion or birth control – but they conflict with minors’ rights to medical consent and confidentiality, according to legal experts consulted by The Imprint, and an analysis of corresponding state statutes and court rulings.

“The situation looks ripe for a lawsuit since, in some states, young people in foster care appear not to have the same rights to reproductive healthcare as their peers who are not in foster care,” said one leading scholar who studies the experience of pregnant and parenting foster youth.

Despite these isolated misleading policies – and the broader lack of policies nationwide – scores of states still require youth be monitored for “deviant,” “sexually reactive, sexually stylized,” or “promiscuous” behaviors, The Imprint found.

Wyoming, for example, requires foster parents to report “active sexual behavior” by 5 p.m. the next day for foster youth up to age 18, raising concerns for advocates that youth are being stigmatized and taught to keep secrets even when they might be in an abusive situation.

The third installment in this series featured a discussion with an experienced sexual health educator who works with foster youth.