Calif. Partnership Tries to Reach Foster Care Youth on Safe Sex

Every time sexual health educator Alma De Anda passes around the female condom in her class, all the students say ‘wow’ at the size of the contraception.

“When we take it out it is hilarious because they are usually weirded out by it,” said De Anda, who talks about all types of contraception and sexual health discussions with foster youth in the Los Angeles area. “They look at you kind of funny for a while but then we explain the benefits.”

De Anda has a whole kit of reproductive health items she uses to teach current and former foster youth, both young men and women, about sex. Her class is one of a number of five-week classes offered by the San Gabriel Valley chapter of Planned Parenthood specifically for youth in care.

It is a local attempt to tackle a serious national problem. The overall teen pregnancy rate plummeted over the past two decades, but more than seven of ten girls in foster care report an early pregnancy.

Since 2009, Planned Parenthood instructors in the San Gabriel Valley region have reached 2,861 youth in care, according to their regional office. Most youth are between the age of 15 and 22, and attend classes either in group homes, transitional housing centers, or as part of Independent Living Skills Program classes.

“Getting this information out really can change people’s lives and help foster youth be able to take control of their own lives,” said Christina Boothman, community education manager at Planned Parenthood.

Once a week, the classes teach about contraception, healthy relationships, body parts, and pregnancy prevention. Students are given diagrams about male and female body parts, and learn language to explain their physical and sexual development. They also learn how and where to access sexual health clinics and the best questions to ask. About five to 20 youth on average participate in a class.

In order to make the youth feel more comfortable, Planned Parenthood makes sure each instructor is available to attend each class before they commit to all five weeks, and that each youth can text the instructor when they have questions.

“I think, for youth who haven’t had a trusted adult in their life, that seeking out more adults in a structured setting that they don’t know much about adds an extra layer of access problems,” said Sara Howard, vice president of communication at Planned Parenthood.

The classes are a partnership with the Children’s Law Center (CLC), which received a three-year health grant from the California Family Health Council to create sexual health classes for youth in care, according to CLC Policy Director Jody Green. The CLC received $35,000 the first two years, but due to reduced funding, they received $23,000 in this final year of the grant cycle.

An additional $36,500 for the program this year has come from a subcontract of both the National Council of Juvenile and Family Judges and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Program success is evaluated in a number of ways, including the mount of information brochures given to judges, lawyers and youth, and youth response to surveys about the amount of information they have received before and after courses.

Between 1990 and 2008, the national teenage pregnancy rate fell 46 percent, from 116.9 to a record low of 67.8 pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15–19, the lowest level in nearly 40 years according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Eighty-six percent of that decline through 2002 was a result of improved contraceptive use and the use of more effective contraceptive methods among sexually active teenagers, and 14 percent of this decline was attributable to increased abstinence, according to an article published by the American Journal of Public Health, and referenced on the Planned Parenthood website.

But the pregnancy rates for girls in care remain shockingly high as the overall numbers drop. Seventy one percent of young women who have been in foster care report having been pregnant at least once by age 21, and of these women, 62 percent had been pregnant more than once, according to the University of Chicago Chapin Hall.

Youth in care are 2.5 times more likely than youth in the general population to get pregnant at least once before they turn 20, according to Chapin Hall, a research organization based at the University of Chicago Chapin Hall.

Class instructors say youth in care have the same questions as every other youth they serve, but they find that building trust with foster youth often takes longer.

“It took a lot longer for them to trust me, whereas I’d go into another group and I could build trust pretty quickly with a group of high school students in a comprehensive high school,” said Boothman.

“They aren’t going to trust you right away, but once they do they won’t let you go,” said Boothman.

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