Helping Youth In Care SHINE: a trauma-informed, accessible approach to sex education

By Allie Long

Helping Youth In Care SHINE: a trauma-informed, accessible approach to sex educationGrowing up in America today, sex education is a largely contentious subject. In fact, less than half of the US states require sex education in public schools. If a formal sex ed program is even provided in a school setting, there is a good chance the curriculum focuses on the negative consequences of having sex, often without addressing the effects of trauma, particularly rape or childhood sexual abuse, on the development of sexuality.

For foster youth, the issue of access to sex education is compounded by the reality that they are often in and out of both schools and homes, which means that they might miss opportunities to learn accurate sexual health information.

Placing a child in foster care is an inevitably traumatic experience for youth due to a host of reasons, regardless of whether or not a specific type of trauma (be it sexual, physical, mental, etc) was the catalyst for foster care involvement. This means that in addition to transience of school and home, the experience of trauma — which is the primary factor increasing someone’s risk for negative sexual health outcomes – makes foster youth particularly vulnerable to receiving little to no educational support during the development of their sexuality.

SHINE TimelineIt’s no wonder, then, that studies have shown that youth involved in the foster care system have higher rates of adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections compared to their peers. Up until several years ago, research on sexual education related to foster care only identified a problem. There was little information about what could be done to reduce the risk.

“At the time that I was working on my dissertation in 2010, there were very few studies that specifically examined pregnancy within the child welfare system. Most of these studies provided limited information on how a system could impact risk factors associated with teen pregnancy, with hardly any mention of any sort of trauma-informed approach. This huge research gap made me want to take the data one step further, which launched the idea to develop real solutions for the child welfare field,” said Dr. Monica Faulkner, Director of the Texas Institute for Child & Family Wellbeing.

Brave Conversations to find solutions

In 2011, Dr. Faulkner co-developed and presented with Lisa Shergen on an interactive lecture entitled “Brave Conversations: Utilizing trauma-informed approaches to talk to youth about sex” to over 700 child welfare professionals, caregivers, and foster parents, through the support of a grant from OASH called the Mobilization for Health Award.

The development of Brave Conversations opened the door to further conversations about trauma-informed sex ed for foster youth. “The feedback was incredible,” said Dr. Faulkner. “We realized that in order to change the statistics, we need to give social workers and foster care providers the tools necessary to actually promote sexual health education for youth in out-of-home care.”

Positive Sexual Health for Youth In Out-of-Home Environments

SHINE logoInspired by the positive responses and provider desire for more like-minded content for foster youth, the TXICFW team developed SHINE. SHINE (which stands for Positive Sexual Health for Youth In Out-of-Home Environments) is an initiative funded by St. David’s and implemented by  TXICFW, aiming to develop those more specific tools requested by Brave Conversations training participants.

Many of the trauma-informed components behind SHINE’s research were influenced by both Brave Conversations and a 2013 study by Fava & Bey-Cheng, entitled “Trauma-informed sexuality education: recognising the rights and resilience of youth.” This is one of the few published pieces that advocates for trauma-informed sexuality education through an approach that acknowledges past experiences of abuse, promotes resilience, and vocalizes every young person’s right to positive sexualities.

How SHINE works

SHINE is a two year project that includes three components. First, the SHINE team created a needs assessment to gather information from counselors and former foster youth about what specific information must be provided to youth. From those interviews, the team learned that foster youth are not currently receiving very basic information, such as information about anatomy and menstruation.

Next, the team began working with Dr. Karen Rayne from UnHushed to create a guide for child welfare professionals. Modeled after An Introduction to Sexuality Eduation: A guide for Mental Health Practitioners, SHINE’s guide will contain an overview of sexuality for child welfare professionals to access correct information and tools for them to engage youth in conversations.

Finally, SHINE will be piloting the UnHushed curriculum from Dr. Rayne with small groups of foster youth this summer. UnHushed is a local nonprofit that aims to break the social silence and stigma surrounding human sexuality by providing evidence-based sex educational services. Courses taught through SHINE involve curricula developed by the UnHushed team, including activities that relate to anatomy, healthy relationships, sexual harassment, consent, STI prevention, pregnancy, reproductive rights, accessing sexual health services, and unhealthy power dynamics, among other developmentally appropriate topics for middle- and high-school students. A therapist and social work intern will facilitate a trauma-informed group to create an educational environment that replaces the shame surrounding adversity with a stronger narrative of resiliency and support.

By empowering foster youth through trauma-informed, evidence-based services, trained SHINE facilitators will help young people create an educational environment that replaces the shame surrounding adversity with a stronger narrative of resiliency and support.