Abstract: "No One Ever Really Sat Down with Me." - Missed Opportunities for Learning about Relationships and Sexuality in the Foster Care System (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

361P "No One Ever Really Sat Down with Me." - Missed Opportunities for Learning about Relationships and Sexuality in the Foster Care System

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Barbara Ball, PHD, LPC-AT, Senior Research Associate, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Sharon Hoefer, MSSW, Project Manager, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Xiao Ding, MSSA, Doctoral student, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Lalaine Sevillano, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Texas at Austin, TX
Monica Faulkner, PhD, LMSW, Research Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background & Purpose: Foster youth tend to know many people, but they have few genuine connections. Older youth are most likely to experience placement instability that impacts their ability to develop and maintain close relationships with family, caregivers, peers, and dating partners. Rules in foster care often prohibit romantic relationships, yet foster youth have higher rates of pregnancy than their peers. They are also more likely to become victims of dating violence and sexual exploitation. Taken together, this evidence points to an urgent need to examine how and what youth in foster care learn about sexual health and relationships.

This exploratory study investigated how youth living in foster care explore peer and dating relationships, and how relationships with caregivers and other adults impact what they learn about sexuality and dating.

Methods: Participants were recruited through organizations serving former foster youth, alumni groups, and foster care liaisons at colleges. The convenience sample consisted of 27 alumni of foster care, ages 21 to 30 years (M=23.5), and was 82% female, 63% heterosexual, 37% LGBTQ, 52% Hispanic, 33% Non-Hispanic White, 10 % Non-Hispanic Black, and 5% Other.

Individual, semi-structured interviews elicited retrospective accounts of experiences in care and relationships with caregivers, dating history, transition out of care, and relationships in emerging adulthood. Participants were prompted for suggestions on how to improve education about healthy sexuality and relationships. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and analyzed using consensual qualitative research strategies.

Findings: Among interviewees, 75% had experienced at least one abusive dating relationship as young adults, and 20% had children before age 21. Their accounts demonstrated how trauma and normalization of violence, pervasive loss and isolation in foster care, and financial and housing instability at the transition to adulthood contributed to the high prevalence of “toxic” relationships.

Participants also described that guidance about healthy relationships and sexuality was generally limited to one-time presentations focused on warning signs and risks. Simultaneously, rules in foster care limited age-appropriate exploration of relationships and kept them in a protective, yet isolating bubble. Participants missed positive role models and learning about healthy relationships, boundaries, and consent. They stated that “it’s not just about advice and education,” but about trusting relationships with adults and ongoing, nonjudgmental conversations about sexuality and relationships. Participants needed to feel loved in order to know that “healthy relationships are not a fairytale.”

Conclusions & Implications: Findings suggest that youth in foster care miss opportunities to learn about and experience healthy and trusting relationships.

There is a need to shift the discourse about teen pregnancy and dating in the foster care system from a focus on risks and negative outcomes to building skills for healthy relationships. Interventions for youth need to be complemented by support and training for caregivers and child welfare professionals so they feel more confident in engaging in conversations about sexuality and relationships with youth.

An overall focus on relational permanency and normalcy in addition to specific interventions will be needed to reduce rates of dating abuse and unwanted pregnancies among youth in foster care.