By Justin Pye
In Theatre Two at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, audience members scribbled away on 3×5 index cards and when the time came, their questions flooded in:
“What age do you feel is appropriate to have the ‘talk’?”
“With foster parents focused on emergency placements, abuse and emotional trauma affecting foster youth, what needs to be done with foster parents to ensure sexuality is also considered a topic of importance?”
“Should talking about sex with foster youth differ from talking about sex with all youth?”
Those were among the questions discussed at a forum hosted by Fostering Media Connections at an event this month to premiere the first episode in its “Let’s Talk About Sex, With Foster Youth” web series.
The San Francisco-based organization, which is the parent organization of The Imprint, was created to call attention to important issues related to the education of foster youth when it comes to sexual choices and health.
On a simply attired set, Ryann Blackshere, who produced the web series, sat with child welfare professionals and former foster youth to expound upon the necessity of an open dialogue about sex.
The first episode was divided into three segments:
“Why Foster Youth Need the Sex Talk”
“Nationally we’re seeing a reduction in the rates of teen pregnancies, but that’s not occurring in foster care,” said Cindy Cain, an investigator supervisor at the Children’s Law Center of California.
Thoughtfulness and self-awareness are characteristics Dr. Toni Heineman, founder of A Home Within, said are essential to enabling teens to make healthy decisions. Yet these elements can be more difficult to cultivate among populations with higher risks of abuse and neglect, circumstances Cain said are prevalent among foster youth.
“The Sex Talk”
In the next segment, two former foster youth shared their experiences with sexual education while in care. Like most teens, they said their “sex smarts” came from peers.
When it came to his guardians, Tony Contreras said their focus was providing him with the basic necessities of creating a home away from home. The sex talk was never considered.
“It was awkward for parents just to talk about sex,” he said, “for me to ask about it, I just felt like that was out of the question.”
“The Talk in Action”
This segment broached the topic of how to open the door to discussing sex with teens in foster care.
Cain played the role of a foster parent and Bonita Tindle, played her foster child. “I just wanted to make sure that you know that you can come talk to me about any conversation, anytime – even as uncomfortable as sex,” Cain said.
A panel was in place after the “webisode” ended and the applause subsided. They spoke on many topics including the practical implications of legislating such a delicate conversation and why it has taken so long to get to this point.
Unlike birth parents, foster parents have to consider their legal obligations when discussing hot-button topics like sex. Some are worried that the discussion may give youth license to have sex and the liabilities that may incur.
Others, panelist Cain said, don’t expect youth to want to have the conversation and are possibly waiting on the children to initiate it.
“We are legally responsible for the care and custody of children in foster care and any responsible parent would make sure to have this conversation,” said panelist Amy Lemley, policy director at the John Burton Foundation, who empathizes with concerns on the law’s side and that of foster parents.
If this is the case, it would seem that the sex talk should be commonplace in foster care, but as Lemley explained, the demographics of foster care have changed.
“Foster care used to be a program for young children,” she said, “We still think of kids in foster care as babies and children and we haven’t adapted our practice to recognize that we have young adults, sexually active people, and that’s a normative life experience.”
In order to normalize the discussion of sex, Heineman says that adults must amend “the talk” and include “not just information about sexual activity, but information about their own human sexual development.”
Panelist and former foster youth Conleysha Gaston suggested asking foster youth with whom they would feel comfortable talking about sex. Not only would this give youth the self-awareness to consider why there is a need to talk about sex with adults, she said, but it would also begin to allow them to think critically about their own sexual health, which is the first step to making better decisions.
This approach could avoid placing the responsibility of having sex health discussions in the hands of an ill-prepared adult, which can result in the oft-heard scare tactics used to detour young people. Heineman said, “teach young people about the importance of loving relationships” and not berate them with the “horrible things are going to happen to you” speech.
As the session turned to audience feedback, an audience member expressed concern that the discussion is in silos and may fail to reach those who need it most. Another mentioned issues with getting child welfare professionals to include sexual health education in foster parenting orientation.
Blackshere says subsequent episodes will focus on specific topics within sexual education, such as sexual preference, domestic violence and reproductive health. She plans for the series to form a catalogue that will allow child welfare organizations host viewing parties and have dialogues about sexual health.
Justin Pye is a television production student at California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is currently a fellow in Fostering Media Connection’s Journalism for Social Change Program.