Train Juvenile Justice Staff to Educate Youth on Sexual Health

A young man shakes hands with a juvenile justice counselor

When it comes to making healthy decisions about relationships and sex, the odds are stacked against young men involved in the juvenile justice system. Many lack stable connections to their families, especially dads who can play a role in improving their sexual health. Others have been exposed to trauma, sexual abuse or other factors that can lead to increased risky sexual behavior.

With few adults to rely on for advice about sex and relationships, many young men in juvenile justice facilities turn to the employees, says Elisa Stodden of Cardea, a Seattle, WA, organization that trains sexual health educators. Instructors, guards and janitors often don’t have the answers—but because they come into regular contact with youth, they are good candidates for providing sexual health education, Stodden says.

So Washington State Department of Health engaged Cardea to train juvenile justice staff to deliver evidence-based sexual health curricula to youth. The initiative is part of Washington’s State Personal Responsibility Education Program, funded by the Family & Youth Services Bureau to reduce pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among the state’s teens.

Stodden works closely with each of four sites chosen for the project, helping staff to identify the best intervention for their facility’s youth. To accommodate the wide range of staff who want to get involved, many of whom have limited background or education in adolescent development and sexual health, Stodden provides a daylong overview before delving into the curriculum training. Staff members also learn how to adapt curriculums without affecting how well they work. This skill, called “fidelity,” is particularly important for on-the-ground workers who know youth well, Stodden says.

“They might see something in the curriculum and know right away, ‘I can’t say that this way. This is not going to resonate with the youth I work with,’” she says.

Lighting the Path From Staffer to Educator

Here are four tips for organizations looking to engage juvenile justice staff in preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among juvenile justice-involved teens.  

  1. Encourage staff to have fun. Facilitators can make their work with youth engaging while respecting their boundaries of their facility.  Past trainees have thrown themselves into role plays to get young people to participate, Stodden says, or given out small items like candy when youth answer a question correctly.
  2. Offer youth leadership opportunities. One site invited youth who had already completed the curriculum, but wanted to stay involved, to take notes and set up the weekly meeting space. These informal leadership roles are meaningful to youth living in an environment where there may be few opportunities for growth, says Wendy Nakatsukasa-Ono, Cardea’s vice president.  
  3. Help youth think beyond the curriculum. Depending on the facility, juvenile justice-involved youth may have limited resources to explore the topics being covered. One Washington partner addressed this limitation by creating an onsite library and computer station where youth can learn more about sexual health.
  4. Encourage buy-in at all levels. During her initial site visit, Stodden typically asks to meet agency leaders as well as employees who will be delivering the curriculum. Bringing everyone into the meeting gets everyone excited about the potential outcomes, she says, and puts them on the same page about how to get there.  
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