Governor: Keep the promise to care for mothers-to-be in foster care

California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, right, speaks with Jerry Brown in 2010.
California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, right, speaks with Jerry Brown in 2010.

Every child deserves the chance to meet his or her potential but, unfortunately for California’s foster kids, the odds are stacked against them. When a teen in foster care becomes pregnant, those odds get even greater.

Young women in foster care are 2 1/2 times more likely to become pregnant by age 19 than other teens. Due to a lack of resources, these young parents often walk out of the hospital completely unprepared.

And, too often, the cycle continues – children born to foster youths in California are 300 percent more likely to enter foster care themselves.

Gov. Jerry Brown has the power to help change this.

California has led the way by passing the infant supplement program in 1989 to provide $326 per month to support foster youths who are themselves parents. For more than two decades, the rate remained stagnant at $411 per month. Thanks to the leadership of Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, and our foundation’s advocacy work, this supplement was bumped up to $900 per month.

While these funds are essential in helping young parents care for their newborns, pay for child care, and afford housing, they do not support parents during the crucial months prior to their child’s birth.

Ting’s bill, Assembly Bill 1838, seeks to allow foster youths to receive funds for their child three months before their due date. This would encourage young mothers-to-be to disclose their pregnancies early, which would help ensure timely referrals to essential prenatal care and expectant mother programs. It also would enable foster youths to prepare for their child’s arrival. Currently, these funds are not available until after the child is born.

Brown may be tempted to veto AB 1838. His Department of Finance advisers oppose the bill. But the morally right and fiscally prudent decision would be for him to sign the bill.

Despite the perception that young mothers give birth to healthier infants, the data suggests otherwise. Infants born to mothers under the age of 17 are nearly twice as likely to be born underweight compared to those born to adult mothers – and that comes at a real cost.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, low birth weight infants spent an average of 17.7 days in the hospital, whereas most healthy infants go home after one day. This increases state costs because health care for foster youth is covered under Medi-Cal.

A 2014 study of 17-year-old pregnant foster teens found that 20 percent of them did not receive prenatal care, increasing the risk that the child will be born with health problems, which in turn leads to higher health care costs. The average net savings for teens who did receive prenatal care at the seventh month of pregnancy is $3,146 per birth.

Four years ago, we made a promise to care for foster children until they turn 21, and the population of parenting foster youths increased. AB 1838 would help keep that promise by ensuring that pregnant youths and their children avoid health problems and have better outcomes.

We all share a collective responsibility for children in foster care, and that includes their babies. With a stroke of the pen, the governor can honor that responsibility. Governor: Let’s keep the promise. Let’s make the odds work in favor of all kids in our care by making AB 1838 law.

Former Senate President Pro Tem John Burton is chairman of the California Democratic Party and founder and chairman of the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes.