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Bid fails to block sex ed for foster kids

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Commissioner Jimmy Garris listens as County Manager Scott Elliot gives a presentation on capital project recommendations on Jan. 23, 2017. (Joe Pellegrino/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Controversy over a sex education program for foster children arose again during Monday's Pitt County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Commissioner Jimmy Garris unsuccessfully tried to block a $5,000 grant funding a sexual health initiatives program for teenagers in foster care.

The item was originally under the board's consent agenda, a series of actions requiring board approval but not board discussion, but Garris asked that it be removed for discussion.

"I really wanted to glass this over and approve it with the other items but my conscience won't allow it," Garris said.

Sex education should be abstinence based, Garris said, and should not include information about safe sex techniques including condom usage.

"I am not even comfortable talking about this subject in public but it is on the agenda so I have to," Garris said. "You are teaching the use of condoms and I just cannot support our (tax) dollars going to that kind of program."

He then made a motion to not accept the $5,000 grant which Commissioner Charles Farley seconded.

Controversy over the sex education program arose earlier this year with former social services board member Choral Whichard proposed substituting an abstinence-based program for the curriculum adopted by Pitt County Social Services.

The curriculum, "Making Proud Choices! For Youth in Out-of-Home Care," was tied to a grant a Pitt County received so the social services board elected to remain with that program.

Commissioner Mary Perkins-Williams said she respected Garris' beliefs

"In all actuality it's not going to happen. ... Hormones are going to continue to rage, and they need to have a handle on things and certain emotions and aspects of their bodies."

Perkins-Williams said she remembers the late Dr. Andrew Best providing sex education classes at C.M. Eppes High School, and it was the first truthful information she received about sex because her parents wouldn't discuss it because of their religious beliefs.

If teens don't learn how to have healthy sexual relationships, there could be more teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, Perkins-Williams said.

"I believe education is the best method to prevent pregnancy," she said.

DSS Director Jan Elliott was asked to explain the program.

Pitt County was one of four counties selected to offer the "Making Proud Choices! For Youth in Out-of-Home Care" program, she said. The 10-part curriculum counsels students that abstinence is the most effective way to eliminate the risk of pregnancy and infection but focuses its on the practice of safe sex and condom use.

"We believe if you are going to prevent STDs you have to teach proper (condom) usage, but it's a whole lot more than that," Elliott said.

Elliott described the curriculum as "trauma focused" and designed for youth who are in foster care or are in the juvenile justice system.

Elliott said many of the children she works with have already been traumatized sexually, including being subjected to sexual trafficking.

Staff had to undergo training to teach the curriculum, and the first class of 15 youth age 16-20 completed the course earlier this summer, Elliott said in a later interview.

These teenagers have been exposed to sex, but have little real knowledge about sexual health, Elliott said.

"You would have thought this group would have known more than they did," she said. "They had a lot of bad information. Lots of folks didn't understand how you could get an STD."

Most didn't understand how sexually transmitted diseases were transmitted.

When the grant was first awarded, it was too late to include in the fiscal year 2016-17 budget, which is why the commissioners needed to approve a budget amendment to account for the $5,000 payment in the final quarter of that fiscal year.

A $20,000 allocation was included in the fiscal year 2017-18 budget the commissioners approved last month, Elliott said.

Farley asked if Elliott could guarantee that youth 16 years and older would be the only ones taking the course. Elliott said no, that there will be another group that likely has younger teenagers and the curriculum will be modified as needed for that group.

The next course will be in October and presented to the children deemed to be most at-risk, Elliott said in a later interview.

"We will try to keep children of similar ages together. I don't plan to put a child who is 14 years old in a class with a 20-year-old, that wouldn't be appropriate," she said.

"We are not talking about grabbing Little Leaguers with normal nuclear families from their game and giving them a talk on how they properly engage in sexual matters," Commissioner Glen Webb said.

Describing himself as "unapologetically pro-life" Webb said he finds value in preventing unplanned pregnancies.

Children who enter foster care have already lived "a life of 100 percent trauma," Webb said.

Since teenage pregnancy almost always results in the parent and children remaining in poverty, "I think there is value and taking people who are in a statistical hole and preventing them from getting in even deeper," Webb said.

Garris' motion to not accept the grant failed in a 3-6 vote with him, Farley and Commissioner Mark Owens Jr. voting yes and Perkins-Williams, Webb and Commissioners Ann Floyd Huggins, Melvin McLawhorn, Beth Ward and Tom Coulson voting no.

The motion to accept the $5,000 grant passed 7-2 with Garris and Farley voting not and Owens joining the others in voting yes.

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

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