Something exciting happened in California this year! There was a new law established that now requires certain sex education topics to be discussed with foster youth. This past June, the California Department of Social Services sent out an all county letter outlining the law change that describes new health rights of foster children and non-minor dependents, as well as social worker and probation officers’ responsibilities to ensure those rights (Rose, 2014). To my delight as a former foster youth, sexuality educator and social worker in training, this letter included sexuality education around three topics. Article 26 in the letter states:
“(26) To have access to age-appropriate, medically accurate information about reproductive health care, the prevention of unplanned pregnancy, and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections at 12 years of age or older (p. 4).”
This may not be completely comprehensive sexuality education, but to have it included in a state law is a fabulous start! But what special issues does this population deal with that would affect their learning in a sexuality education classroom? Of course that is a topic much larger than this post, but I would like to look at a few considerations that sexuality educators should take into account when working with foster youth.
Support and education around sexuality for this population is critical. Foster youth face the same challenges as other youths, but due to their life circumstances these difficulties are intensified. An abundance of foster youth lack stability in most areas of their lives and often do not have reliable adults who they can talk to about sexuality. Studies have shown that foster youth are more likely to have unplanned pregnancies under the age of 20, engage in risky sexual behaviors (AASECT, 2013), and contract STIs (Robertson, 2013). In some cases, LGBTQ foster youth have even been found to be treated more poorly in the system and rejected by foster parents because of their sexuality. It is fundamental that sexuality educators bear in mind what challenges these youths are up against, and make changes in the learning environment as necessary.
As educators, it is important for us to create a learning environment where all students feel welcomed and included. Language can easily exclude individuals or groups if not thoughtfully used. For instance, instead of only referring to “parents” during lessons, add “guardians” or “caretakers” for those who may not be in contact or in the care of their parents. Additionally, be aware that social workers, probation officers, CASA workers, or other particular individuals may play a huge role in foster youth’s lives in contrast to other students. Use language to validate the experience of being a part of an institutional system. If the educator is using teaching materials that have prompts, case studies, role plays, or stories, they can even include examples that include foster youth, foster parents, or social workers.
Being Aware of High Rates of Physical and Sexual Abuse
Many foster youth have experienced various forms of physical and sexual abuse in their lives. I recently interviewed a social worker from California who has been working in the field for over 40 years, and she stressed her views of how important it is to give foster youth a sense of control over their bodies and sexuality due to their diverse experiences. High rates of adolescents in foster care have been or currently are sexually active, whether it be consensual or nonconsensual. Again, language plays a role in this, so being aware of language and how you’re framing situations is vital. Although, we as educators should also be aware of any assumptions we may bring into the classroom while working with foster youth. It is valuable to be aware of issues that affect them, but not to expect that these issues affect all foster youth.
Lacking a Voice
Being in the foster care system often limits youths’ voices and involvement in decisions that directly affect their lives. It is always crucial to listen to the population you work with and to encourage their participation, but needless to say I find this particularly important while working with foster youth. Encourage the youths to participate and to even take leadership roles if possible. Also, now that reproductive health care, prevention of unplanned pregnancy, and prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections are required in California (which could possibly take effect in other states in the future!) it is also important to be aware if the youths are mandated to be in learning environment involuntarily. Since foster youth are often required to attend numerous interactions such as court, meetings with social workers, counseling, church, etc., it is useful to acknowledge the circumstances of their attendance and the effect it may have on their learning.
Our Role as a Sex Educator
Just like working with any other population, working with foster youth can be challenging as well as extremely rewarding. However, while working with these youths it is also important to realize “where the sexuality educator’s role ends and the sexual counselor’s role begins is often a grey area” (Bruess & Schroeder, 2014, p. 219). It is imperative to know your role in the learning environment, recognize your limits and intervene appropriately. If additional assistance is needed by youths that is out of the realm of work you are there to do, offer proper resources and referrals.
This is just a glance at a few things to consider while teaching sexuality education to foster youth. These factors can easily be overlooked, becoming detrimental to the learning experience for the foster youth. If other sexuality educators have any additional tips for working with this population, or even if you have a positive experience working with a foster youth that stands out, please share!
American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). (2013). Sexual health and foster youth. Contemporary Sexuality, 47(5).
Bruess, C.E., & Schroeder, E. (2014). Sexuality Education: Theory and Practice (6th Ed.). Sudury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.
Robertson, R. D. (2013). The invisibility of adolescent sexual development in foster care: Seriously addressing sexually transmitted infections and access to services. Children and Youth Services Review, 35(3), 493-504. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2012.12.009
Rose, G. E. (2014, June 16). All county letter no. 14-38 to State of California Department of Social Services.