Sex ed for youth in foster care

Sexuality educator Deborah Roffman was kind enough to share with me specific advice for working with youth in foster care. She noted that professionals who work with this population must meet the five core needs of children and adolescents, and do our best to see that foster parents and birth parents alike do the same. Here are the five needs:

  1. AFFIRMATION: Seeing and hearing children as they are. This means recognizing that our children have entered a stage of sexual development and are sexual beings. It also means being approachable, so they know that there are no “unaskable” questions.
  2. INFORMATION GIVING: Empowering children through knowledge. Young people need to know basic facts and concepts about sexual and reproductive health. Note that this should not take the form of a one-time information dump. This knowledge should be dispensed gradually and continuously as children develop, and we should take care that what we teach them is always age-appropriate. (I work with adolescents and young adults, but Roffman starts her conversations very early on with elementary schoolers.)
  3. VALUES CLARIFICATION: Highlighting “right” thinking. It is tough enough for young people in families to clarify their values in an environment where they are constantly bombarded with confusing and conflicting messages about sexuality. Young people in care are especially thirsty for values clarification. Adults should be careful not to slip into judgmental stances when filling this role.
  4. LIMIT SETTING: Keeping our children safe. If you know and love young people you will have heard the old chestnut that even teenagers in the throes of rebellion are looking to adults to set limits for them. Roffman argues that though the content of the limits will change as our children mature, the need for limits remains constant.
  5. ANTICIPATORY GUIDANCE: Making ourselves dispensable. Roffman observes that the ultimate goal of parenthood is to put yourself out of business, and this should extend to all youth workers as well. In the limited time we have to raise our children, we should be equipping them with “specific kinds of knowledge, self-awareness, attitudes, values, communication, decision making, and problem-solving skills” (Roffman 181).

On a more practical level, for those of us who cringe at the thought of holding frank discussions about sex and sexuality with young people, Roffman institutes an “I pass” option for educators and students alike. She also never asks students to share information she herself would not be comfortable sharing, and only offers her opinion on more controversial issues after a few of her students have already given their perspective.

I highly recommend her book Sex & Sensibilitybut she encourages readers to check out an updated version of the work titled Talk to Me First.

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