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Close Monitoring May Help Troubled Teen Girls Avoid Pregnancy

WEDNESDAY June 17, 2009 -- Placing teenage girls with a history of juvenile delinquency in specialized foster-care programs had an unexpected consequence: It kept them from getting pregnant, researchers found.

Researchers directed 166 girls aged 13 to 17 who were ordered by the courts to receive treatment for criminal behavior to either specialized foster care or a group-care facility.

The specialized programs, called Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC), were developed in the 1980s to provide severely delinquent youths one-on-one care and supervision from foster parents trained in behavior management.

Techniques include awarding points for positive behavior (completing chores, attending school regularly) and losing points for negative behaviors, such as not completing homework, according to the non-profit Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.

One of the keys of MTFC is limiting contact with other troubled teens. In contrast, children in group homes are housed with delinquent youths.

After two years, 26 percent of the girls in foster care became pregnant, compared to almost 47 percent of teens in group care, according to the study reported in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Girls in the foster-care program also had reduced levels of criminal activity and arrests and increases in school engagement.

The results were dramatic, said study author David Kerr, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Oregon State University.

Teen pregnancy rates fell for much of the last decade before ticking up again the last two years. The United States still has one of the highest rates compared to other industrialized nations.

Girls in conventional foster care are particularly at risk. One survey of teens in three states found that nearly half of girls in the foster system reported a pregnancy by age 19, Kerr said.

In MTFC, teens are highly supervised by foster-care parents, who are provided with ongoing consultation, support and crisis intervention services from program supervisors.

"One of the most interesting aspects of this research is that the MTFC program was created to reduce crime, not pregnancy," Kerr said. "It specifically targeted changing the girl's environment: her home, her peers and her school experience. The focus was on giving her lots of supervision, support for responsible behavior, and consistent, non-harsh consequences for negative behavior. And this worked to reduce pregnancy rates."

There are 51 of these specialized foster care programs in the United States and Canada, 41 in Europe and one in New Zealand.

While caring for teens in group homes costs $7,000 a year less than specialized foster care programs, an independent analysis of teen boys showed that reductions in criminal activity among teens in the specialized programs costs taxpayers and crime victims $78,000 less per teen in the long term.

"The figures aren't available for girls yet, but delaying unintended pregnancies should add to that savings," Kerr said. "But aside from the economics, the real plus is helping a high-risk teen grow up some more before she takes on that important job of motherhood. That's good for everyone."

More information

For more on Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, visit the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy.

Posted: June 2009


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