Rescue remedies

England has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in
Europe. To counter this, the government launched its national
teenage pregnancy strategy in 1999 with the aim of halving the
conception rate among under-18s by 2010. Strong correlations
between social disadvantage, exclusion, poverty and pregnancy have
been well documented and this link is even stronger in the case of
young people in, or leaving, local authority care.

The social and health problems experienced by young parents can be
reduced by financial and emotional support from their families, but
young women leaving public care have limited sources of help. But
if this could be rectified, the tribulations associated with
teenage pregnancy could be alleviated, an unpublished study by the
Thomas Coram Research Unit for the Department of Health

The Children Act 1989 gave local authorities obligations and
guidelines for young people leaving care, including “advice and
befriending”, while the Quality Protects initiative and the
Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 place new duties of care and
support on local authorities. But, in cases of young parents
leaving care, few local authorities have specific policies in place
and the provision of services from health to housing varies.

Although it is known that looked-after young people are less likely
than others to take up and use health services generally, little is
known about their access to sexual health services. The young
people interviewed reported limited access to information on sexual
health and relationship matters for several reasons: among them
were concern over raising issues with foster and residential carers
because of their views on sex and negative attitudes on the part of
care workers and GPs.

Poor communication skills also hindered access, particularly in
cases when the young person had a learning difficulty. Young people
interviewed described learning about sex through “trial and error”,
with 90 per cent reporting either sporadic or no use of
contraception. Many missed school regularly or described poor
quality sex education programmes.

The reaction to pregnancy was often one of shock but, despite the
problems associated with becoming a teenage parent, the researchers
found that the outcomes were not routinely negative. For the
majority of the young men and women it was a positive event, often
described as “calming” and providing a focus in their lives as well
as love and affection. This was important, as young people
described feelings of rejection, isolation and loneliness as a
result of experiences before and during care. They also had
difficulties trusting people and services and often developed a
strong sense of self-reliance and a desire to do things for

A 17-year-old mother with one child said: “I needed someone to sit
down and talk to me about life, but I had to work it all out by
myself. I’ve been able to look after myself since the age of about

Importantly, many of them had been in situations where they were
vulnerable to exploitation, violence and homelessness. Some of
their experiences in care had exposed them to early sexual activity
and experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Often, their
circumstances represented an accumulation of vulnerability and
disadvantage. A nurse specialist for looked-after children said: “I
had one girl who was at a residential unit. She came for a medical
and she said she was under pressure to start thinking about

The young people in the study had mixed experiences of social
services. Young mothers were reluctant to access support because of
concerns about “interference” and the possibility that their
children might be taken into care. Although some relationships with
social workers were positive, others were more complex. Young
people felt “checked up on” by the child protection assessment
process, which was viewed as punitive and alienated them from the
sources of support they needed. Facing parenthood at the same time
as dealing with independence required access to a range of
services. Some leaving care services were described as holistic and
consistent and were appreciated by the young people who had
benefited from them, but quality and provision varied

Many professionals described past and current family influences as
key factors in how well a young person coped as a parent. The
support of a partner – where the relationship was working well –
was described as another vital factor in helping young mothers
cope. Of the young women interviewed, 51 per cent reported being
with a partner (usually, but not always, the father of one of their

Of the young men, 56 per cent were with the mother of at least one
of their children. The rest had varying degrees of contact with
their children by an ex-partner. Young fathers described various
economic, social and structural barriers to playing their part in
children’s lives and said their needs often went unacknowledged.
One care leaver said: “When we found out that my partner was
pregnant, I was offered help, but not her or the baby. I was
offered a one-bedroom flat and told she could sleep at the flat but
not live there as she was not a care leaver.”

What emerged from the discussions with these young people was a
need for a trusted person to provide reliable emotional and
practical support to help them navigate the system and gain access
to the services they needed.

The report highlighted the role played by key workers who could act
as confidants and help ease the transition from care, providing
neutral support and advice. The role of personal advisers in
leaving care teams or Connexions services should be extended and
developed to provide holistic support for young parents. This would
help them to access health, sexual health and parenting services,
tackling concerns over lack of confidentiality and

An independent advocate could also steer young people through the
pre- and post-birth child protection assessments, increasing their
participation in the process and refocusing on affirmative action
and supportive practice. To underpin the planning of joined-up
services, data need to be collected on young parents in and leaving
care and what happens to them, not just in the sense of assessing
risk but to help improve services so that they provide better care
and life chances for them and their children.

How the study was conducted  

The study reviewed what is already known about rates of
pregnancy among looked-after young people and those leaving care
and gathered information from four locations in England. In-depth
discussions were held with 47 mothers and 16 fathers aged 15-23,
all of whom had been or were about to become first-time parents as
teenagers. Seventy-eight professionals and carers were also

Elaine Chase, Abigail Knight and Ian Warwick are
researchers, Peter Aggleton is director and Cathy Brownjohn is
communications officer at Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of
Education, University of London.

Further reading

The research will soon be published in peer review
journals. For more information contact Elaine Chase at
Cathy Brownjohn at
phone 0207 612 6944

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