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Foster Care = Early Sex

Early intercourse could be sign of previous trauma, says study

FRIDAY, Sept. 14, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Each year, thousands of young women end up in the care of foster families or have to leave their parents and live with other relatives. A new study suggests that these teens will have sex and get pregnant earlier than their more-rooted peers.

Do the seeds of their behavior lie in the past, before the parents left the picture, or in the present? "It's a little hard to sort out," said Dr. Sara Carpenter, a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital in Denver and co-author of a recent study into how foster care affects a child's sexual development.

But the answer could be important, because it may shed light in an ongoing debate about which is better --- foster care with strangers, or kinship care with people the child knows.

According to federal statistics, about 568,000 children were in foster care in 1999. Most were members of minority groups; 42 percent were black.

Carpenter and other researchers examined data compiled in a 1995 survey of 9,620 females between the ages of 15 and 44. "I've taken care of foster kids for a long time, and they have a lot of unmet health needs," Carpenter said. "I wanted to look at how kids who are in -- or have been in -- foster care are doing."

The findings appear in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Of those surveyed, 89 had spent time in foster care and 513 were taken care of by relatives, including aunts, uncles and grandparents. The researchers found that sexually active females in both groups, on average, had their first sexual experience by age 16, instead of age 17, which is the norm among girls who aren't fostered out.

The girls in both foster groups who had been pregnant conceived at a lower average age (19) than other women (21). Also, females in both foster groups were more likely to have had more than three sexual partners.

"The first [apparent] conclusion is that foster care and kinship care are bad," Carpenter said. "But you have to be careful about that. They are markers of someone who has had a rough life. Nobody gets placed with a stranger unless child welfare [officials are] involved. Something happened to that child --- the child was abandoned, or there was physical or emotional abuse."

Some might think the findings show that kinship care isn't better than foster care, Carpenter said. But that conclusion isn't warranted either, she said, because the study looked at women who grew up years ago, and kinship care has only recently become a popular alternative to foster care.

"Kinship care is thought to decrease the trauma of being placed out of a home," she said. "The children are more likely to know their caregivers and to not necessarily have a change of schools."

But research hasn't proven those assumptions, and experts don't know whether foster or kinship care is better for the sexual development of girls, said Peter Gibbs, director of the Center for Adoption Research at the University of Massachusetts.

So what causes these women and girls to be more sexually active than their peers? The answer may not lie in the foster or kinship care itself, Gibbs said. Instead, their actions may reflect the "high-risk homes" where they formerly lived.

Carpenter agreed, and both experts said the research shows that children's welfare workers must understand the risks facing foster children.

"They need more services, they need more intervention in terms of people teaching them about sexual behavior, and they need to have more counseling," Carpenter said. "They need more involvement, ideally when they are 8, 9 or 10, before they begin behaviors that are high risk. Once they're already pregnant, it's too late to go back."

What To Do

Have you ever thought about being a foster parent? Learn about the benefits from this personal column at kidsource.com.

To talk to other foster parents about such issues as sexuality, visit the bulletin boards run by Foster Parents CARE.

SOURCES: Interviews with Sara Carpenter, M.D., MSPH, pediatrician, The Children's Hospital, Denver; Peter Gibbs, LMFT, director, Center for Adoption Research, University of Massachusetts, Worcester
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