The problem of children having children

Photo by Philippe Put

Three years ago, I visited a children’s shelter and learned about a 14-year-old mother with two children. The child-mom and her babies were in the Texas foster care system. Legally, Texas was the parent of all three: all three vulnerable children at risk for more abuse, poverty, and a lifetime on welfare.

The story of this child, who was attempting to parent her own two children, made me ask: “How often do elementary and middle school girls get pregnant? What could be done to stop the sexual assault and abuse that were resulting in pregnancies of young children?”

To answer these questions, the Wright Family Foundation, which supports at-risk youth in Baltimore and Austin, partnered with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health to estimate the number of children who were giving birth in Texas annually. The research used publicly available hospital discharge data from 2014. The research examined only live births in hospitals; it did not include birth centers, home births, stillbirths, or abortions.

Even though they are invisible to most of us, hundreds of young girls in Texas are having babies. In 2014 alone, there were 449 live births to girls aged 10 to 14.

To bring those numbers down, it is necessary to bring this to the attention of Texas citizens and policymakers. By law, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders cannot “consent” to sex. These girls have been violated and traumatized and face extremely difficult lives ahead. The public also needs to know the costs incurred. In 2014 alone, Texas spent $52 million in Medicaid funds to cover births to girls aged 10 to 17. The cost to taxpayers of children giving birth is a drop in the proverbial bucket when compared to the later price tag of welfare, support services, and education.

The hospital costs of delivering babies to children and teens, compared to women in their 20s and 30s, are higher and more likely to be paid for by taxpayers. In Texas in 2014, Medicaid — the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people — paid for 77 percent of births to girls aged 15 to 17. State and federal funds picked up the tab for an eye-popping 81 percent of births to children aged 14 and under.

The problem may seem insurmountable. It is not. Small, thoughtful steps can be taken. Texans can work together to ensure that young children are protected from the abuse or neglect that results in a pregnancy. Lawmakers can support policies that prepare teachers to recognize and report sexual abuse and to better teach children “self-protection” skills. Texas should take the lead in eliminating childhood sexual assault trauma, child pregnancies, and their resulting costs to families, communities, taxpayers, and the state.

Katherine Wright

Executive director, Wright Family Foundation