A study of Missouri girls in foster care found that about half of them had become pregnant or had given birth by age 19.
To address this startling statistic, Washington University is launching a regional pregnancy prevention program for this high-risk population. With funding for five years from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the project will serve an estimated 600 teens in foster care or “aging out” of foster care in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Spearheading the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative is Katie Plax, MD, a Washington University adolescent medicine specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She also is medical director of The SPOT, a drop-in teen health center at Washington University Medical Center.
The program director is Washington University colleague Kimberly Donica, executive director of Project ARK, a program that coordinates medical care, social support and prevention services for women and children with HIV.
“We will use a proven program with these young women to help them prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases,” Plax says. “We also want all youth in foster care in our region to have a comprehensive health assessment within 30 days of entering care to engage them in healthy behaviors.”
Under the initiative, The SPOT will become the medical home for these teens, who often do not have a primary-care physician. Teens entering foster care will get a comprehensive medical evaluation at The SPOT within 30 days of entry into the program.
Health educators at The SPOT will use the Safer Sex intervention, a three-part program designed to reduce the rates of teen pregnancy. The intervention includes a short video, an education session with a female health educator and follow-up sessions at one, three and six months. Safer Sex is designed to increase condom use, reduce risky sexual behaviors and prevent recurrent STDs among female adolescents.
Girls in the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative will also have the opportunity to participate in the Contraceptive Choice Project, a Washington University research study that includes free contraception for participants.
To ensure the target population is reached, Project ARK and The SPOT will team with the Missouri’s Children’s Division, adolescent and pediatric health providers, mental health experts, foster care legal and policy advocates, youth-serving community organizations and the statewide Teen Pregnancy Prevention Partnership.
“This grant will allow us to impact the high rate of teen pregnancy among youth in foster care by providing the resources to implement this prevention program within a medical home model,” Donica says.