Despite taboos and a tense political climate, a group of former foster youth, sexual health educators, and child welfare and violence prevention experts have banded together to further raise awareness.
High-stakes silent system: Read more from Imprint’s series on sexual and reproductive rights in foster care.
Six years ago, when Zoe Jones-Walton was turning 18, she sat in a windowless conference room in the Dallas area with dozens of other assisted youth. A series of adult life lectures covered everything from how to write checks, how to find a job, how to find an apartment, and how to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. That exercise involved putting a condom on a banana to learn about safe sex.
“They’ve packed everything into this week, so it should be like, ‘Okay, when I go out into the world alone, I’m going to remember all this,'” Jones-Walton said.
“I don’t,” said the 25-year-old, who works as an advocate.
a Recent research A federally commissioned study found that foster children face a “disproportionate risk of poor sexual health.” But like many of her colleagues in child welfare systems across the country, Jones-Walton had little information about intimacy and relationships. The banana demonstration was the first and only lesson she received on this front, she reflected in her recent interview.
Recently, Jones-Walton has joined a unique effort to extend this important guidance to teens under state custody.of the Texas Foster Youth Health Initiative Effort It involves small groups of 10 to 15 young people and weekly discussions rather than one-off lectures.
Jones Walton is consideration The star of the attention of child welfare advocates. She was invited to help organize lessons covering basic sex education, healthy relationships, setting boundaries, giving and receiving consent, and more.
While many such curricula emphasize the risks of sex through what Jones-Walton calls the “fear approach,” health initiatives focus on traumatic experiences and suffering from moving homes and caregivers. are often tailored to meet the needs of teens within the foster care system. The Texas curriculum was developed by former foster youth, child welfare and violence prevention professionals, sexual health educators, and foster parents from across the state.
Carly Patrick, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher and former foster youth in Texas, was among those consulted about the project. Even as an adult, she said, she went through her own sex education, especially since there was a lot of silence about it, especially in the Christian home where she was placed.
Since then, “I’m really happy that I was able to participate in creating a safe space,” Patrick said. “Teaching people how to talk about this subject without prejudice or prejudice empowers children to make their own choices.”
Such lessons are rare nationally, and even more so in Texas, where legislators are conservative. Limited school sex education curriculum, especially on gender identity and LGBT-related topics. An Imprint survey released in May found that child welfare agencies across the country are seeking little or no guidance on issues related to reproductive health, intimate relationships and sexually transmitted disease prevention. became.
The information gap is troubling given the gaps we face that nurture our young people. Compared to the general population, young people who grow up in child welfare systems are at greater risk of inadequate access to medical care, interpersonal violence, and difficulty building trusting relationships. higher.
“These conversations aren’t happening,” said Barbara Ball, a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the leaders of the Foster Youth Health Initiative. “We are not talking, we are responding to adolescent behavior that adults consider dangerous.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services has invested billions of dollars in the past decade to fill the gap in teenage pregnancy prevention programs, but those efforts typically reach a wider audience through schools and other communities. . The Texas Health Initiative is he one of only her two organizations dedicated to youth development through the Competitive Population Affairs Office. innovation grant It aims to promote cutting-edge approaches to preventing teenage pregnancies.
Ball’s program has received approximately $5.6 million since 2020 to operate in the San Antonio, Dallas, Rio Grande Valley, and Houston areas under a three-year grant ending this year.
Recent data highlight the need for information and support. Last year, the number of pregnancies among adopted adolescents in Texas hit a record high in her five years. data show. The elderly youth population is also quite large. Of the roughly 28,000 children in Texas’s orphanages at the end of 2021, more than 6,000 were 13 and older. according to to federal data. There are also significant racial disparities in the counties in which the initiative operates, highlighting the need for unique competencies to discuss these sensitive issues.In seven of the state’s largest counties, including three counties with active health initiatives, black children almost twice as likely entering a nursing home.
When asked for her opinion, Jones-Walton reflected on her experience with foster parents who approached the issue based on personal or religious beliefs rather than standard care. She was on birth control, she said, even though she was not sexually active. Until then, she hadn’t even considered having sex.
When Jones-Walton got the chance to help other foster youth navigate similar situations through the Texas Health Initiative, she said, “Yes, I thought this was very important.” said.
“Teaching people how to talk about this subject without prejudice or prejudice empowers children to make their own choices.”
— Carly Patrick
Ball started her career at a school that taught dating violence. When she joined Professor Monica Faulkner, expert Pregnancy and Parenting in Foster Homes — Texas Institute of Child and Family WelfareThey quickly realized that what had hitherto been sporadic interventions with foster adolescents needed improvement.
In many cases, their research found that child welfare professionals shied away from the topic.
“People fear re-traumatizing foster youth. We always expect negative consequences. We’re really missing an important opportunity to teach them what it is,” Ball said. “So we’ve made a real effort to shave it off, bit by bit.”
Youth advocates argue that traditional teenage pregnancy prevention programs focus on individual behavior and assume rational and planned decision-making. For example, showing children scary pictures of sexually transmitted diseases will cause them to adjust their behavior to avoid it. Sexual health curricula developed over the last decade bring even more nuance to the conversation.
Ball’s Program and Others – like California’s Youth-Led Statewide Coalition Reproductive Health Equity Project for Youth Development — Recognizing the background and disadvantages faced by young people from marginalized, low-income communities who enter a court-mandated system of making decisions about their lives.
In addition to focusing on the care needs of adolescents, health initiatives in Texas also focus on supporting child welfare. Expert and foster parentthere is often a lack of information on how best to approach sensitive topics.
“There are resources out there, but we know that young people professionals struggle to find, access, and use that information,” said homeless youth and Jean Decaucy, Project Director of Activate, a reproductive health organization that specifically serves active professionals, said. , are cut off from school or have no experience with child welfare or the justice system.
DeCoursey’s team publishes Reproductive Health Resource Explorer databasewas “impressed and appreciative” that the Federal Bureau of Population Affairs is supporting sex education programs for foster youth in Texas and California that are designed and implemented with affected youth. there are,” he said.
of the activate tip sheet Encourages candid conversations with professional caregivers across the country. But they also advise avoiding “trying to ‘know it all’ when discussing sexual and reproductive health with adolescents.” Caregivers are advised to “work with young people to find the information they need.”
The Texas Foster Youth Health Initiative relies on a similar team approach and has received positive feedback from participants. The program has so far he has served more than 300 caregivers and about 150 foster parents and is considering expanding to other states.
Patrick, youth adviser for the Texas Initiative, says the effort needs to continue. Without explanation and despite her objections, she spoke with her hard-earned confidence about her own painful experiences in foster care, including the Pap smear test required by local authorities. I will tell you.
After surgery, she, her doctor and her adoptive mother said, “We just sat there and cried together because it was traumatic for all of us.”
Patrick, who recently taught toddlers at a daycare in the San Francisco Bay Area, stressed the importance of boundaries, even for two-year-olds.
The title of the lesson is “Stop, don’t touch my body”. Toddlers learn to hold their hands firmly up, palms facing out, like a universal stop sign.
That’s the lesson she wished she had learned growing up in a foster home.
“Communicating with my biological mother was not an option,” Patrick said. “I read romance novels to get all the information. That’s not the way to learn about sex.”