Improving the Lives of Foster Kids

Teens in foster care story

About 50% of girls in foster care will get pregnant by the time they are 19 – almost three times the rate for the general population. Foster kids also face a higher risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases – boys who have been in foster care are 14 times more likely to suffer from gonorrhea than their peers. Dr. Kym Ahrens is using an innovative summer camp to help foster children reduce these risks and overcome the emotional and behavioral problems that contribute to them.

“Inviting these kids to summer camp lets us work with them for several days and can be a really transformative experience,” says Ahrens, a principal investigator in the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development.

When Ahrens started studying foster children’s sexual decisions, she found they’re more likely to have unsafe sex when their emotions are out of control. She also found that many foster kids have trouble being assertive, making it harder for them to say no, insist on condom use or ask their provider for birth control.

In August 2013, Ahrens and her team took eight teenage foster kids to a three-day camp. They taught them ways to understand and regulate their emotions, delivered lessons on STD and pregnancy prevention and used role-playing exercises to help kids communicate with foster parents and romantic partners. It’s the first time a camp has been used to deliver these lessons to foster kids.

“We showed them how to identify when their emotions ramp up, and how to bring that emotion down and make better decisions,” Ahrens says.

She also wanted the kids to have a fun, authentic experience that gave them a break from their often tumultuous lives. The camp included a ropes course, hikes, art projects and campfire songs.

Now that the first camp is over, Ahrens plans to survey participants to see if their behavior changes, and she will refine and improve the curriculum. She hopes to expand the camp next year and to eventually do a controlled study that compares the camp’s results to kids who don’t receive the intervention. If her approach is effective, Ahrens envisions helping colleagues launch similar camps nationwide.

“This could be a powerful way to help these kids make better sexual decisions and navigate the world in ways that lead to happier, more fulfilling lives,” Ahrens says.