Latest Research in Child Welfare, Sexual Health + Relationship Education

latest rCheck out these short research summaries from other experts in the field + learn their implications for practice!

“We are kind of their parents”: Child welfare workers’ perspective on sexuality education for foster youth (2020)
Harmon-Darrow, C., Burruss, K., & Finigan-Carr, N.

Youth in foster care face many barriers when it comes to communicating effectively about their sexual and reproductive health questions and needs with child welfare workers and caregivers, including inconsistent relationships, frequent placement changes, and the impact of trauma. As a result they have less access to sexual and reproductive health services and information. 

This study explored the unique challenges, needs, and strengths of child welfare workers and foster parents in providing sexual health information to youth. They study aimed  to build evidence for the development of sexuality education training for child welfare workers and caregivers.   

Over the course of six months, researchers conducted three focus groups with child welfare workers and foster parents. Researchers asked participants open-ended questions to learn more about what these groups think about  their specific roles in conversations with youth about pregnancy prevention and STIs.  

Researchers discovered three main themes that foster parents and child welfare workers would like more training around. They are:

1) Communication with youth: Many participants expressed a desire to tailor their communication styles to fit the individual needs of youth in order to have better conversations around sexual health. This also included having more regular dialogues about sex, which requires that  adults are knowledgeable and comfortable in having such conversations.

2) Defining adults’ roles and activities in assisting youth: Among both foster parents and child welfare workers, there was uncertainty related to their roles and duties and what they should say to youth who experience foster care in terms of sexual health. All participants expressed a greater level of comfort and confidence after receiving an up-to-date training on the subject matter.

3) Values about sex and sexual activity: Many child welfare workers reflected on struggling with not putting their own personal beliefs on the youth, especially when it came to talking to youth who were sexually active and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community.

By addressing these needs through effective training , researchers suggest that these adult figures could provide better and clearer support for the sexual and reproductive health needs of youth in their care.

Caregiver perceived barriers to preventing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections among youth in foster care (2018)
Albertson, K., Crouch, J.M., Udell, W., Schimmel-Bristow, A., Serrano, J., & Ahrens, K.R. 

Caregivers can play an important role in helping youth make positive decisions for their sexual health and relationships and decrease sexual risk behaviors. Therefore, experts are calling for engaging the larger support networks of youth in foster care to improve health outcomes for youth. However, there has been limited research  to find out what foster parents think and feel when it comes to discussing sex with youth. This study sought to explore the perspectives of foster and kinship caregivers and identify strategies that could help them more effectively communicate and monitor youth around sexual health.

Researchers recruited a diverse group of 86 foster and kinship caregivers who had cared for youth between the ages of 11-18 for at least three months out of the last year. Eleven focus groups were conducted in California, Washington, and New York. Trained focus group leaders asked open-ended questions about any difficulties caregivers had experienced when either talking to or monitoring their youth’ sexual health.

Researchers discovered that caregivers lacked sufficient support and felt unprepared to communicate with youth about sex due to differences in gender, sexual orientation, and lack of up-to-date sexual health knowledge. Based on focus group findings, researchers suggested that future research explore the effectiveness of trauma-informed training where caregivers can be taught how to tailor their communications based on cognitive and social emotional development of the child rather than age, and practice non- judgmental communication. These trainings might provide an opportunity to both normalize youth exploration of gender and sexual identities and to provide clearer messaging from public and private child welfare agencies when talking to youth about sexual health.

Reproductive coercion, intimate partner violence, and pregnancy risk among adolescent women with a history of foster care involvement (2021)
PettyJohn, E., Reid, T. A., Miller, E., Bogen, K. W., & McCauley, H. L.

Reproductive coercion is a type of intimate partner violence where a person’s ability to care for their own reproductive health and decision-making is taken out of their hands. Research has found that LGBTQ+ community members and women of color are at a much higher risk of experiencing reproductive coercion than their heterosexual white counterparts. These marginalized groups are also disproportionately overrepresented in the foster care system, due to the intersectionality of a variety of social factors. This was the first study to take a closer look at how reproductive coercion is experienced among women in foster care and how such experiences impact their sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

A total of 136 women between 16-24 were surveyed for this study, 80%+ of whom were women of color, and nearly 50% identified as not exclusively heterosexual. Researchers recruited participants from youth-serving agencies. Participants completed a 30-minute online survey about  their experiences with reproductive coercion, physical and sexual violence victimization, sexual behaviors, pregnancy, and personal demographics.

About one third of the participants surveyed reported having experienced reproductive coercion, which is notably higher than rates found among college, clinic-based, and veteran participants. Researchers found that the most common form of reproductive coercion reported was male partners telling participants not to use birth control. Women with a history of reproductive coercion were also more likely to experience physical or sexual partner violence, have sexual partners who were more than five years older, and have a history of unwanted pregnancies. In this study, nearly one third of women reported an unwanted pregnancy. The results showed a need for trauma-informed prevention and intervention practices when working with young women in foster care.  

Based on the results from this study, researchers suggest policy changes that would allow the foster care system to provide regular education about healthy relationships. Comprehensive sex education should include conversations around reproductive coercion, unintended pregnancies, and patterns of abuse, in addition to promoting access to reproductive healthcare and contraception.