By Michael P. Norton
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Thirty percent of pregnant and parenting teens in Massachusetts were homeless at some point during the past fiscal year and almost 10 percent of teen parents who were homeless had been subject to commercial sexual exploitation, according to a report released Tuesday.
The authors of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy report say it "exposes the cascade of trauma" facing homeless teen parents, finding 59 percent of teen parents who had been homeless had been physically or emotionally abused or neglected by a caregiver and 27 percent had been sexually abused. Researchers cited lack of family support, teens raising siblings, and teens being kicked out by caregivers as reasons for teen homelessness.
"The crux of what we found points to how vulnerable these young families are," Elizabeth Peck, the alliance's public policy director, said during a briefing on the report.
Peck called on policymakers in the state Legislature to increase the number of teen living shelter program beds available and to extend access to the program to teens at any stage of their pregnancy - teens must currently be about six months into their pregnancy to apply to the shelter program, which has a wait list that varies from 25 to 60. The program is also currently tied to welfare eligibility.
"State-funded shelters are really important for this population," said Peck, who called the data on sexual exploitation and abuse levels among homeless pregnant teens and teen parents "really jarring."
Lisa Goldblatt-Grace, director of My Life My Choice, a Justice Resource Institute program that aims to reach teen girls most vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation, predicted the report would draw national attention because it makes connections between family conflict, abuse, sexual exploitation and teen parenting and homelessness.
The report defines commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) as "sexual abuse in which there is compensation in the form of money, good or services, or the promise of such" and says it includes street and internet-based prostitution, pornography and stripping. Researchers reported the most frequent age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation is between 12 and 14 years old, and estimate 100,000 to 300,000 youth are at risk for CSE each year in the U.S.
Goldblatt-Grace said pimps in Massachusetts know where teen living programs are operating and often troll malls, bus stations and social media sites like Facebook looking for vulnerable teens. "Our referrals have gone through the roof really in the last five years," she said.
The briefing drew few lawmakers, although Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, and Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, did attend. Finegold said he hoped the report, which authors say is the first of its kind in the nation, will lead to more people obtaining safe housing arrangements.
According to the alliance, a welfare reform bill approved by the Senate in June and pending before the House Ways and Means Committee, expands access to the teen living shelter program to allow pregnant teens to apply at any stage of pregnancy. House leaders have said the full House plans to take up its welfare reform bill in September.
To compile the report, the alliance surveyed teen parent service providers about individuals served between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012, with the survey capturing the experiences of 4,439 youth. The alliance and My Life My Choice also conducted three focus groups with homeless teens.
A survey conducted by the alliance in 2000 found 32 percent of young families were homeless during fiscal 1999, leading the authors of the new report to conclude the percentage of homeless teen parents has remained steady for over a decade. The report released Tuesday estimated nearly 2,600 teen mothers were homeless at some point in fiscal 2012.