Reproductive Justice for Foster Youth

Fighting for the rights of California adolescents to retain personal control of their bodies.

Poonam Juneja, Staff Attorney, National Center for Youth Law

Poonam Juneja, Staff Attorney, National Center for Youth Law

When S.H. entered the foster care system at age twelve, she had already suffered years of sexual abuse by her stepfather. She was around seventeen and a young mother, when her county welfare agency placed her in a Promesa Behavioral Health group home in California. Upon arrival, the group home made S.H. sign a document promising that she wouldn’t engage in sexual activity while she lived there. 

S.H. described what happened next: “One day … I asked the manager … to make me an appointment at Planned Parenthood. She told me that Promesa doesn’t “affiliate” with Planned Parenthood. She questioned why I wanted to go there when I had signed a contract saying that I would not have sex. … I didn’t want to tell her that I needed Plan B, because I would get in trouble since I wasn’t supposed to have sex.” 

The group home didn’t allow S.H. to visit Planned Parenthood. Later, after she experienced unexplained bleeding, S.H. found out that she was pregnant: “The Promesa staff was really upset when they found out that I was pregnant. … [The group home manager] said that I was “off program,” which means I had privileges taken away, including my visits home to my mom and with my baby.  [She] tried to pressure me into getting an abortion. … I decided I just couldn’t do it and told the house manager. When my house manager found out, she got upset. She wouldn’t let me go on an outing with the rest of the girls. I also wasn’t allowed to go to the store to buy things like toiletries, even though the other girls were allowed to do this. The worst part was that the group home wouldn’t let me visit with my daughter as punishment.” 

S.H. later learned that her bleeding was the result of a miscarriage: “Once my house manager found out about the miscarriage, I stopped being punished.”

S.H. is not alone in her experiences. Numerous foster youth and former staff members have reported that Promesa staff refuse to permit youth to obtain health services from their provider of choice, including Planned Parenthood; force them to waive their right to confidential medical care; and require them to sign abstinence agreements. They indicate that Promesa staff frequently search foster youth’s belongings for contraceptives, such as condoms; confiscate any contraceptives found; and punish youth who have them, by taking away youth’s so-called “privileges,” such as visiting family members.

Promesa’s practices make no sense. Young women in California’s foster care system experience significantly higher rates of unwanted teen pregnancy and childbirth than their counterparts who are not in care. More than 25% have been pregnant at least one time, compared to about ten percent of female youth nationally. Young people in the foster care system have trouble getting and using contraception, including condoms. Although 70% did not categorize their pregnancy as wanted, only 25% were using some form of birth control at the time that they conceived. Foster youth also struggle with access to proper prenatal care during pregnancy: 20% of those who have been pregnant reported that they received no prenatal care at all during pregnancy.

Promesa’s practices are not only contrary to good public health policy; they also violate the law. The California constitutional right to privacy protects the fundamental right of California adolescents to retain personal control over the integrity of their bodies and to decide whether and when to parent. California’s medical confidentiality statutes additionally provide adolescents with the right to control and limit the release of information regarding reproductive and sexual health services they receive.

In order to protect and defend foster youth, the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) with Impact Fund support, and its legal co-counsel, Keker & Van Nest LLC, have filed a lawsuit in Fresno Superior Court, seeking to protect and enforce the privacy rights of young women living in Promesa group homes. The lawsuit on behalf of Planned Parenthood, S.H., and other foster youth with similar experiences, challenges Promesa’s practices that deny foster youth reproductive and sexual health care services and information to which they are legally entitled.

NCYL is taking action to stop these practices, because it is critical for foster youth to have their healthcare and their privacy protected.