Young women and girls in foster care face unique, gender-based barriers. These barriers, such as teen pregnancy, higher frequency of running away, and the risk of human trafficking, often mean that young women and girls in foster care are not able to thrive. As March is Women’s History Month, SOS Illinois would like to highlight these specific areas of concern for young women and girls in foster care and present how our unique model creates a different narrative of hope and a generation of future leaders.
National statistics reveal that there are around 214, 092 girls in foster care. In a culture that is constantly promoting false images of beauty, identity, and value, young women are already faced with much insecurity. Girls in foster care are at even greater risk because they don’t necessarily have stable familial networks helpful in reminding them of their worth, despite societal or peer pressure. Because of this sense of insecurity and instability, young women in foster care are more vulnerable to teen pregnancy, running away, and human trafficking. The work done by SOS Illinois combats these narratives by keeping siblings together, providing education, offering access to health and wellness programming
s young women and girls up for success.
Research has shown that girls in foster care are twice as their peers to become pregnant before age 19 as the result of several reasons. Children in foster care often don’t spend a long time in one home or even school, making it harder for girls to receive the same quality of education as their peers, thus lacking consistent adult figures and role models in their lives. This may mean missing important education on sexual wellness, decision-making, and more, as well as not having an adult role model to approach with questions about relationships or safe sex.
Additionally, in some cases, a teenage girl in foster care may become intentionally pregnant as a way of creating her own family. The unfortunate reality, however, is that after aging out of the foster care system, young women are likely to experience various financial and personal hardships that make it difficult to care for a child. This increases the likelihood that the child will be placed into the foster care system themselves, continuing the cycle.
At SOS Illinois, we aim to ensure that all of the young women and girls in our care are able to focus their energy and attention on academics, extra-curricular activities and hobbies, healthy friendships, and family relationships. Our College Bound and Beyond Program helps keep our teenagers focused on what they want for their futures. Additionally, open and honest relationships with our Foster Parents give our teens an effective mentor and role model when making decisions about dating and wellness, thus allowing us to have a teen pregnancy rate lower than that of traditional foster care.
Research has shown that nearly ½ of older youth in foster care have run away at least once, if not multiple times. This runaway behavior results from both “push” factors and “pull” factors. “Push” factors are things that the child is running from (such as concerns in school or foster family life) and “pull” factors are things that the child is running towards (such as the lure of a boyfriend or partner). One factor that commonly increases runaway behavior is separation from siblings.
There are many risk factors for children running away during their placement in foster care. Research has shown that females express more runaway tendencies. In fact, women and girls made up for 61.4% of runaway foster youth between 2012-2017, with co-factors including age (older children and teens are more prone to running away), race/ethnicity (minority), sexual orientation (LGBTQ), substance use, mental health, foster care placement instability, history of sex trafficking victimization or abuse, pattern of running away, and more.
A report to Congress from last year stated that “Evidence consistently demonstrates that placement setting and placement instability profoundly affect runaway behavior. In fact, one study concluded that “the most important prevention [for running] is to stabilize foster care placements” (2-18). There are several ways to stabilize foster care placements so that protective factors are put in place. These factors include placing a child with their siblings, creating a permanency plan, and making sure they have lasting connections to caring adults.
SOS Illinois ensures that each of these factors are the main pillars in our model. We create a more permanent home setting in the form of our Villages. Each Village consists of professionally-trained and loving Foster Parents who invest fully in the lives of the children placed in their care. SOS Illinois also prioritizes placement with siblings, where brothers and sisters are able to remain together throughout this time of transition. These factors allow for more stability in foster placements and therefore establish a protective framework that children feel comfortable residing within instead of running away.
One heartbreaking result of the instability of foster care and the runaway statistics is that children in foster care are more likely to become victims of human trafficking. The 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report says, “Recent reports have consistently indicated that a large number of victims of child sex trafficking were at one time in the foster care system.” This is because traffickers prey on the most vulnerable in society and unfortunately, children in foster care can become extremely vulnerable is they do not have networks of stability. Studies show that “Children raised in foster care have a greater chance of becoming victims. In 2013, 60% of child victims the FBI recovered were from foster care. In 2017, 14% of children reported missing were likely victims of sex trafficking, and 88% of those had been in child welfare, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported.”
Youth in foster care can experience trafficking by family members, within foster care, or after running away. Statistics of foster care runaways and those that become trafficked are linked closely. 19% of runaway reports for foster care are likely victims of sex trafficking. A recent report to Congress noted that those who facilitate trafficking youth target children in foster care and use their position of vulnerability to bribe them with housing, money, drugs, and alcohol.
One of the most common ways that traffickers draw in young women and girls is by pretending to be a loving boyfriend. Traffickers know that girls in foster care are looking for someone to love and accept them, are more likely to go along with the trafficker’s needs. This results in Stockholm Syndrome, an effect where girls continue to go back to their trafficker because they have developed feelings of trust and affection that they believe are genuine.
SOS Illinois aims to prevent this vulnerability that causes youth to be victimized. Youth live in a monitored Village environment where they have the support system of Foster Parents, caseworkers, and counselors that prioritize their wellbeing. SOS Illinois also provides risk-informed education for Foster Parents and staff so that all those involved in a child’s life know how to protect them and recognize signs of risk.
Creating a New Narrative of Unconditional Love
In an article in Foster Focus Magazine, a former girl in foster care, Jessica Tamez, writes about how girls in general have a difficult time with cultural narratives telling them what they should be and should look. She states that girls in foster care will experience deeper insecurity and often sabotage the good in their lives because they feel as though they don’t deserve it. She writes, “We destroy ourselves because that’s what is familiar to us. We know no different, so what I have to say to you adoptive and foster parents, is show us differently. Show us love unconditionally, show us compassion, patience. Help… girls see their worth because chances are it has never been seen before. It’s not easy, but it is doable.”
With this understanding, SOS Illinois prioritizes the wellbeing of children in our care, focusing on the particular and specific needs of each child and recognizing that gender-based challenges must be addressed. We hope to change the narrative of unworthiness to one of worth and unconditional love, and invite you to join us this Women’s History Month by investing in not only the young women and girls we serve but the full community impacted by their care. You can even make your gift today in honor of a powerful woman in your life.