Sex Ed for Foster Care Youth

August 06, 2012

Teens

New figures released from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that the number of children in foster care in the United States has decreased by approximately 120,000 in the last decade. In 2002, there were roughly 520,000 children in foster care and as of September 30th of 2011, that number was down to 400,540. This is partly due to an increased effort on the part of states to place children in kinship care, reunify children with their parents, and make larger investments in family-preservation programs to keep children in their homes while making sure those homes provide a safe environment.

While the average length of stay for a child in foster care has been reduced by 10% since 2002, it is still approximately two years. That's almost two years of a child being moved around to different living arrangements, which not only keeps them separated from their parents but can also disrupt their relationships with other relatives and peers, their education, and their connection with a community. These factors--family, school, neighborhood, and peers--are critical for a young person's healthy development, especially when it comes to healthy relationships and sexual behavior. These ties are often more difficult for youth in foster care to maintain due to the transient lifestyle of the system.

With these support networks for teens in foster care often disrupted or non-existent, the issue of reproductive health and sexuality education is difficult to approach and is handled in a variety of ways in different state and local child welfare systems. There are currently no evidence-based sexuality education programs for youth in foster care (although many dedicated people are currently working hard to close this gap) even though this population of teens is at a higher risk for teen pregnancy and early child-bearing. For example, a study of a cohort of youth in foster care in Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin found that a girl in foster care is 2.5 times more likely to become pregnant by the age of 19 compared to her peers not in foster care.

The reason behind higher rates of teen pregnancy and early childbearing among youth in foster care is not necessarily because they are more sexually active than other teens--rather the lifestyle they are subjected to in the child welfare system puts them at a disadvantage in establishing networks and relationships that typically help youth avoid risky behaviors. Past traumas such as abuse and neglect can play a large role, as well as the fact that not all of these youth become sexually active by choice. A recent report from  the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being II (NSCAW) found that of approximately 1,000 youth in foster care, ages 11-17, 11.1% of females and 5.6% of males had had forced sex.

So how can the adults and agencies in the lives of these youth in foster care do their best to provide a stable support network and offer consistent, appropriate, and accurate sexuality education for the young people they serve? Does it start with individual caseworkers, judges, foster parents, biological relatives, school systems, and health care practitioners, or will it take one big collaborative effort from all? To read more about the importance of sexuality education for youth in foster care, check out "Sex Ed for Foster Youth: Why It's a Necessity" and The National Campaign's Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice page.

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A group of teenage girls