Youth in Texas foster care need empathetic sex education

Photo by Muliadi Soenaryo

The sexual education of youth in foster care needs more attention. A recent report from Texans Care for Children suggests that girls in foster care are nearly five times more likely to get pregnant than girls who are not in foster care.

In their evaluation of Medicaid data, researchers found that nearly 5.7 percent of teenage girls in the state’s foster care system in 2015 were pregnant. The disparity in teen pregnancy rates provides further evidence of the need for child welfare professionals to increase and improve their efforts to provide comprehensive sexual education to all youth in the state’s foster care system. In response to these findings, state officials have acknowledged that more needs to be done to improve the sexual education of youth in care and have committed to improving those efforts.

As child welfare officials consider how to best enhance the sexual education experiences of foster youth, there are certainly some issues and topics that need to be addressed.

Teens in foster care face high risks of pregnancy for a variety of reasons. The instability and rejection that many teens have experienced from their families of origin and in their foster placements add to their vulnerability to unhealthy and risky relationships.

Given the high rates of traumatic sexual experiences among youth in foster care, sexual education should specifically address issues related to power in relationships. A recent study exploring factors associated with successful sexual education programs found that programs with substantive content related to gender and power dynamics are five times more effective in reducing unplanned pregnancy than those that don’t.

Few populations of youth in foster care would benefit more from effective and inclusive sexual education programs than LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Questioning) youth. LGBTQ youth are disproportionately overrepresented in the foster care system, with nearly one in five  teenage foster youth reporting an LGBTQ identity. Factors such as family rejection, placement instability and overreliance on group home placements can contribute to vulnerability to sexual exploitation, abusive relationships and risky sexual behaviors Efforts to improve sexual education for youth in foster care should be inclusive of accurate information that does not overlook, stigmatize or stereotype them.

The challenges for teens in foster care often intensify as they age out of care and navigate young adulthood. Young people who age out of foster care are much more likely to have babies in young adulthood, with 17.2 percent of foster care alumni having at least one child before their 25th birthdays.  

Over one in five young people will experience homeless after leaving foster care. Only 3-5 percent will go on to earn college degrees, and current and former foster youth face increased vulnerability to sex trafficking. While life after foster care can be challenging, navigating adulthood with a small child adds additional challenges. Young women in foster care are among the most vulnerable to recruitment into sex trafficking. Having a small child can make a young woman even more vulnerable to the coercive and exploitive tactics of sex traffickers.

When the state assumes guardianship of a young person, it assumes the responsibility of providing sexual education that is accurate and trauma-informed. In their response to teen pregnancy disparities, child welfare professionals must recognize that the complex trauma experiences of youth in care require much more than access to birth control and education about the consequences of sexual behavior. Traditional abstinence-only sexual education can be especially harmful and confusing for young people who have experienced sexual abuse.

Sexual education discussions with foster youth should be absent of double standards that place an added sense of blame and shame on young women. This dynamic only reinforces the same patriarchy that contributes to the domestic violence, child abuse and substance abuse that many young people experienced with their families of origin.

As child welfare administrators try to enhance their efforts to provide more effective sex education to foster youth, it is critical that they seek to address the unique experiences, vulnerabilities, identities and resourcefulness of young people in care.

St. Edward’s University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Adam McCormick

Assistant professor, St. Edward's University

Rachel Bono

Graduate, St. Edward's University