Lovingly referred to as the “talk” or “the birds and bee’s” by parents around the United States, the dialogued surrounding sexuality and relationships is not one easily had. In an ideal home, youth are able to transcend the path to adulthood with support and trusted guidance from knowledgeable adult supporters. However due to the disruptions which are inherent to the experience of entering the foster care system, many youth miss the opportunity to receive the critical conversations needed to prepare them for adulthood.
WHO SHOULD HAVE THE TALK
As a foster parent or child welfare worker, despite the ambiguous boundaries of responsibility, you may be the only person available in a youth’s life to initiate this paramount discussion. This responsibility changes for each youth as you consider their emotional competency, circumstances, and legal standing in the child welfare system. For instance, if a youth is a voluntary placement you might want to consult or rely on the input of the closest family member that has custody of them. In the case of youth who are in an APPLA and or are classified as state wards, the opportunity for them to receive guidance might not exist in any traditional sense. For state-by-state information on policies and standards for sexual health education in schools please consult the following website.
HOW SHOULD THE TALK LOOK
Recently, the parameters for what an adequate sexual education should encompass has been questioned. Once an educational standard, the abstinence model is now under a lot of criticism for its ineffectiveness. Several studies have confirmed that youth who receive comprehensive sexual education as opposed to the abstinence only model are 60% less likely to experience pregnancy before their 20's.
For information about comprehensive sexual educations see:
Contrary to the initial ideologies that inspired the abstinence only education, new research has debunked the idea that this method produces lower teen birth rates. In fact, states that practice abstinence only education are far more likely to show higher rates of teen pregnancy than states that practice the comprehensive sexual education model. The map below shows the decrease of teen pregnancy by state as abstinence models were replaced by comprehensive sexual education.
GOING A STEP FARTHER FOR YOUTH IN CARE
Despite the national improvements in sexual education, there are still specific needs of older youth in foster care that is not adequately met by information alone. More than perhaps other youth, the motivations driving teens in foster care to seek romantic relationships can seem especially exacerbated by their home life. Foster youth come from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds and experiences that may affect their need and desire to gain interpersonal affirmation. One example of this may be a youth who seeks physical intimacy as a coping mechanism for the trauma or neglect they've experienced.
MY STORY (22 yr old former foster youth)
There was a time in which seeking out romantic relationships was a way for me to feel loved and appreciated. When sex finally came up, I felt as if by saying no I'd compromise the only valuable relationship I had. Knowing the consequences of my actions simply wasn't enough to motivate me away from possibly dangerous decisions. Instead what made the difference for me was understanding WHY I was so compelled to seek out the relationships I did and learning to cope in more appropriate ways. Comprehensive models may have taught me how to avoid pregnancy but didn't necessarily guard me from unhealthy choices. Likewise for a youth who may not recognize themselves in hetro-normative examples, effective education may fall on deaf ears. For this reason, it's imperative that sexuality and relationships be taught alongside basic sex education in order to effectively address the boundaries between foster youth and positive relationship choices.