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Concerns raised about sex ed curriculum for foster children

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Jan Elliott

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Ginger Livingston

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A member of Pitt County's Board of Social Services wants the agency's director to reconsider the curriculum chosen for a sex education program being implemented for the county's foster care youth.

Board member and vice chairwoman Coral Whichard said the chosen curriculum gives incomplete guidance on avoiding risks associated with teenage sex. Whichard wants social services to implement an abstinence-based program, also called a sexual risk avoidance curriculum.

"My main concern are those children. I know they are going to be 16 to 20 (years old) in the instructional group, but the older I get the younger they are," Whichard said. "I can see what is coming ahead for them, and I don't want to do anything that when we look back years later and say, 'Gee, I wish we had thought this through.’”

Whichard voiced her concerns during a Board of Social Services meeting last week, presenting the board's four other members with articles and studies gleaned from an organization called Ascend, which advocates for an abstinence-based sex education curriculum.

No board members offered comments on Whichard's proposal.

DSS Director Jan Elliott said in a later interview that unless the board decides to act, she will implement the chosen curriculum, called "Making Proud Choices! For Youth in Out-of-Home Care."

"At this point we are going forward as this is the curriculum we are going to use,” Elliott said. “We are going to look at this other curriculum (LoveNotes) to see if there are ways we can make that curriculum work, and we'll certainly entertain looking at curriculums if there are pieces from it, but we need to use a state-approved curriculum.

"I understand that sex is a hot-button issue,” she said. “I understand where folks are coming from. Folks need to understand I am not going to further the damage the children I have by exposing them to porn, but I am going to have a frank discussion with them."

As the director of social services, Elliott is the legal guardian of all children in foster care. Throughout the interview, she repeatedly referred to herself as "their parent."

Pitt County was one of four counties selected to offer the "Making Proud Choices! For Youth in Out-of-Home Care" program. The 10-part curriculum discusses abstinence as the most effective way to eliminate the risk of pregnancy and STD infection but focuses its discussion on the practice of safer sex and condom use.

Whichard has reviewed video and text used in the curriculum. It is the focus on safe sex and condom use over abstinence that Whichard dislikes.

"I felt like I went through several hours of an infomercial about all the ways how to use condoms," she said. "It's like they are cutting out this small wedge of what a healthy relationship should be, and it's so much more than that."

The curriculum was created by SHIFT NC, Sexual Health Initiatives for Teens, formerly known as the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign.

"We have to be cognizant of the big picture when talking about our kids," Elliott said.

A number of children come into foster care having already endured sexual assault and sex trafficking, she said. In some instances, they are already parents.

"What we have to do is backtrack to some degree and say these aren't appropriate behaviors and work with them around what is appropriate, reinforce things about proud choices and where you want to be in the future and don't have a child until you are ready," Elliott said.

Pitt County Social Services became involved in this curriculum when the state Department of Health and Human Services received a grant to offer sex education funding for out-of-home youth and children and teenagers who are in foster care and detention facilities. DHHS officials reviewed curriculum and selected the "Making Proud Choices!" curriculum because it has been offered in other states and there is evidence that it works.

DHHS officials approached Pitt County about offering the program, Elliott said, in part, she believes, because of the county's success with LINKS, an initiative designed to prepare foster children for independent living.

Pitt County received $6,667 last year to begin training staff. The Pitt County Board of Commissioners and DSS board voted in April 2016 to accept the money and begin training.

Social services will receive $20,000 annually the next five years for the program. Elliott said her agency has received $10,000 in addition to the original $6,667.

Social workers presenting the curriculum will begin training this summer. The goal is to start the program in late summer or early fall.

Training is essential for a successful program, Elliott said.

"They are very strict about having folks trained because our children come with trauma," she said.

Pitt County has approximately 160 children in foster care. Elliott and Susan Bullock, a foster care social work supervisor, declined to identify how many are believed to be sexually active or how many are already parents.

Elliott said the program will target ages 16-20. The information is presented in 10 modules using a combination of video, text and discussion.

The curriculum is frank, Elliott said, but not graphic. In the videos, teenagers engage in discussions about sexual situations. Class participants then discuss the best responses to the situation.

Along with preventing pregnancy and STD infections, the curriculum is designed to educate young people about the characteristics of healthy relationships, increase knowledge of sexuality topics, increase confidence in their ability to negotiate safer sex, strengthen the students' intention to use birth control and condoms if they have sex, and instill a strong sense of pride and recognition that taking responsibility for their actions makes a difference in their lives.

Whichard said the curriculum does not do enough to promote avoiding the risks of sex through abstinence.

"It is really encouraging children to continue risky behavior and giving the false impression that just the use of contraceptives, a condom is safe," Whichard said.

The Ascend materials Whichard gave board members discusses studies that indicate sex education curriculum that stresses birth control and condoms isn't as effective in protecting youth from unplanned pregnancy and STDs as other research has indicated.

While there are young people in foster care who are already sexually active, adults sell them short in thinking they cannot adopt abstinence, Whichard said.

"I’ve seen these children and I've been so impressed with what they can do when they rise to your expectations. You don't have to lower your expectations," she said.

During the April 11 meeting, Elliott said the curriculum Whichard proposed is not on the state's approval list. Elliott said the state also approved a curriculum called LoveNotes. According to that curriculum's summary, it encourages decision-making based on a young person's aspirations "rather than merely emphasizing what they must avoid."

Whichard concluded her remarks by saying she would like the board to have a discussion after it reviewed her materials.

Whichard brought Dr. Wesley Earley, a local primary care physician with interests in behavioral health, to the April 11 meeting. Earley said as a primary care physician, his focus is on preventing declining health.

"The kids in the foster care program are really at our mercy," Earley said. "What is best for them is primary prevention, that is, viewing this as not engaging in sexual activity and, if you are engaged in sexual activity, how do we prevent you from having untoward outcomes from that."

Too often sex education stops at the explanation of what sex is from a biological and physiological standpoint, but not on the decision-making process that allows young people to avoid bad outcomes, he said.

"Avoidance just makes all the sense to me to prepare these kids for adulthood," he said.

Whichard suggested including Earley on any curriculum reviews Elliott's office might undertake.

"I'd have to think about that, to be honest. I'd have to think about how that would all have to fit together but that could be an option," Elliott said.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570. Follow her on Twitter @GingerLGDR.

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