Prevalence and Risk Factors for Early Motherhood among Low-Income, Maltreated, and Foster Youth
Children and families interacting with the child welfare system are arguably among the most profoundly affected by public policies, and are also of particular interest in light of recent estimates that about a third of all children in the U.S. will be investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) before age 18. Using newly constructed longitudinal administrative data from a single state (Wisconsin), we investigate the relations between child welfare involvement and key outcomes in emerging adulthood. We consider differences in the risk of early childbearing among low-income, maltreated, and foster youth, and whether differences likely reflect selection factors versus effects of involvement with Child Protective Services (CPS) or foster care. We find that both the youth involved in CPS and in foster care were at significantly higher risk of early motherhood than low-income youth, and these differences are not explained by a range of sociodemographic and family composition characteristics. Yet, our findings indicate that CPS and foster care are unlikely to be causal agents in the risk of early motherhood: among foster youth, risk was lower during foster care as compared with before; and among CPS involved youth, risk was lower after CPS investigation as compared with before. In addition, after youth exited foster care, those who were reunified with their birth families were at higher risk than those placed in adoption or guardianship. Overall, our findings suggest that, whereas CPS and foster youth are high-risk populations for early motherhood, CPS involvement and foster care placement do not exacerbate, and may instead reduce, risk. We interpret these findings in the context of related finding on the variation in the educational and earnings outcomes of youth exiting foster care.