Primary Sources: Reducing STI Risk Among Youth Leaving Foster Care

Photograph of a young man looking hopeful.

“Psychosocial Pathways to Sexually Transmitted Infection Risk Among Youth Transitioning Out of Foster Care: Evidence from a Longitudinal Cohort Study” (abstract). Kym R. Ahrens, Cari McCarty, Jane Simoni, Amy Dworsky, Mark E. Courtney. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 53, Issue 4 (2013).


What it’s about: Researchers wanted find out what puts youth aging out of foster care at risk for getting sexually transmitted infections, and what factors protect them from STIs. To do this, they examined potential "pathways" for STI risk among 713 young people, including their number of foster care placements and history of physical and sexual abuse. Participants, who were part of a longitudinal study known as the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth, also answered questions about their sexual health behaviors, like how of they used condoms and whether they had had sex for money.

Why read it: Youth in foster care report having sex earlier and with more people than their peers, as well as selecting partners who already have STIs, the researchers write. Foster youth are also more likely to have been physically and sexually abused, and to battle substance abuse and mental health problems that affect the way they connect with others, they say.

We still don't know enough about how to prevent STIs among foster youth and improve their sexual health generally. This study aims to begin to fill that gap.

Biggest takeaway for family and youth workers: Of the factors the researchers studied, a young person’s history of physical or sexual abuse was most closely associated with his or her risk for getting an STI. Youth who reported having been abused said they also got into trouble by doing things like getting into fights and stealing. These kinds of behaviors have been linked to not using condoms consistently and having a high risk of infection. Connections to caring adults made a difference for youth in this study, with young people who were very close to their current foster caregiver being less likely to get in trouble.

The study's results suggest that focusing on the way youth behave with others may also help keep young people from getting STIs, the authors say. Sexual health educators who work with foster youth may want to supplement traditional STI curricula with therapies that help young people learn to regulate their emotions and build relationships with others.

Additional reference: Learn more about the Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth and see outcomes from each phase of the study.

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