Do Past Experiences Shape Sexual Behavior in Young Women with Foster Care Histories?

A smiling young woman.

Sexual Risk-Taking Among Recently Emancipated Female Foster Youth: Sexual Trauma and Failed Family Reunification Experiences,” (abstract). Ana Gonzalez-Blanks and Tuppett M. Yates. Journal of Research on Adolescence. In press (2015).

What it’s about: Previous research on foster care youth has identified child maltreatment as a possible cause of risky sexual behavior later in adolescence. However, child welfare placements and maltreatment-related mental health symptoms, such as dissociation, may also contribute to young women’s actions, Gonzalez-Blanks and Yates write. They surveyed 114 young women, ages 18-21, who experienced childhood abuse or neglect and were recently released from foster care. During three-hour assessments, including an interview and several computer-based questionnaires, Gonzalez-Blanks and Yates sought information about the women’s experiences of childhood maltreatment, child welfare placement histories, and sexual risk-taking behaviors in order to analyze links between their life experiences and behaviors.

[Learn about a sexual health program that may become an evidence-based intervention for foster youth.]

Why read it: Research shows that young people who age out of foster care are at higher risk for contracting sexually transmitted infections, becoming pregnant, and running away and experiencing homelessness when compared to their peers who have not had contact with the child welfare system. Understanding the sexual health risks among foster youth can shed light on ways to prevent these outcomes.

[Read about a study that surveyed youth workers’ perspectives on pregnancy prevention among foster youth.]

Biggest takeaways from the research: Gonzalez-Blanks and Yates discovered links between the young women’s life experiences and behaviors. Here are some of the findings:

  • High levels of sexual activity and early age of first intercourse. Significant numbers of study participants engaged in risky sexual behaviors including: first intercourse at age 15 or younger (31%), never using birth control (32%), positive diagnosis for sexually transmitted infections (18%), sexual intercourse with six or more partners (34%), and exchanging sex for material goods at least one time (8%).
  • Turbulent child welfare placement histories. Sixty-two percent of participants went through one or more family reunifications and/or extended kin placements, and 94% of the women were placed in more than one type of child welfare program (e.g., foster home, group home, kin placement).
  • Several factors linked with sexual risk-taking. Child sexual abuse, failed family reunifications, and dissociative symptoms (i.e., ways that youth temporarily detach from painful emotions and/or experiences by mentally “leaving” their bodies or immediate surroundings) were all strongly connected to risky sexual behavior among this sample of young women.

The authors recommend that service providers exercise greater consideration when deciding whether or not to return children to one or both biological parents, as failed family reunifications may be linked with potentially adverse sexual health outcomes.

[Find tips for youth aging out of foster care in a toolkit created by the U.S. Department of Education.]

Additional References: Look for more articles about foster youth, sexual health, and sexual violence in our digital library.

Discover resources that can help youth and their health care providers discuss sexual health topics.

View a slideshow about six apps for mobile devices that help youth take charge of their sexual health.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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