Methods: In-depth focus groups were conducted with 16 foster youth aged 16-20 years and 17 social work professionals serving them. Youth were asked to identify their top sexual health needs and, subsequently, discuss their experiences and desired changes. Then, we explored professionals’ perceptions of youths' needs, and what they would need to successfully address them. Data were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using Thematic Analysis.
Results: Analysis revealed that sexual health training and support among social work professionals serving foster youth should address three key areas: enhancing trustworthiness, addressing bias, and supporting preparedness. Foster youth and social work professionals expressed the need for a non-judgmental care approach to gain the trust of foster youth. Youth highlighted the importance of patience from professionals during relationship-building; one youth likened this extended process to being “like a marriage.” Professionals expressed that addressing bias rooted in their personal values and being emotionally prepared for sensitive and uncomfortable discussions is critical for readiness to address foster youths’ sexual health needs. Staff also emphasized that the interrelationship between relationship, reproductive, and mental health as determinants of sexual health need to be appreciated when providing guidance to foster youth.
Conclusions and Implications: Social work professionals’ sexual health-related training and support needs expand well beyond sexual health knowledge. Given the unique challenges foster youth face, training for social work professionals should prepare them to address foster youths’ sexual health needs holistically encompassing relationship, reproductive, and mental health inter-relationships through trauma-informed and context-specific perspectives. Sexual health prevention models that address providers’ own personal barriers and readiness, increase their self-efficacy, and build youth-professional relations are needed in order to help foster youth achieve sexual health and well-being.