For Foster and Refugee Youth, a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program That Acknowledges Trauma

Diverse young people standing and smilingAt Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids, MI, a teen pregnancy prevention session can feel like a United Nations meeting.

Funded by a Competitive Abstinence Education Grant from the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Program, Bethany’s program for youth in Michigan’s child welfare system serves many refugees from Central America, Africa and other parts of the globe.

“There are so many youth from so many different countries and so many interpreters,” says Tiffany Clarke, who supervises the program. “There’s this energy and youth are raising their hands and trying to get their interpreters to work faster so they can participate.”

Held in child welfare facilities and afterschool sites in Kalamazoo, Holland, Grand Rapids and Detroit, the 16-week program offers refugee and U.S.-citizen youth a carefully calibrated set of programming and services. Youth participate in an evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention curriculum called Teen Outreach Program, or TOP, plus a trauma-informed curriculum created by Bethany staff. The mostly 14- to 18-year-olds (and a few older youth) also benefit from a host of social services and referrals offered by Bethany.

‘Like Tumbleweeds’

About 380 young people, about one-third of them refugees, have gone through the program since it launched in January 2013, Clarke says. The weekly sessions are a small slice of stability in the lives of the young people, for many of whom change and trauma are the only constants.

“They’re like tumbleweeds,” moving from placement to placement, Clarke says.

The repeated upheaval foster youth experience makes a program like Bethany’s important, says Youth Development Specialist Linette Dyer.

“Because they don’t have control, they take control anywhere they can in their lives--sexual relationships, acting out in school, knowing healthy boundaries but choosing to go against them because that’s in their power,” Dyer says. “Our program teaches them they do have control.”

Positive Factors

Clarke says the program works because it offers “positive protective factors to decrease risk factors—relationships with facilitators, self-esteem skills, and community-service learning projects. Our approach to pregnancy prevention is giving youth something else to hold on to so they have a sense of worth.”

That “something else to hold on to” comes in part from TOP’s youth empowerment approach, which puts young people in control.

TOP is designed to give youth healthy behaviors, life skills, and a sense of purpose. Studies of the program, which was developed by the Wyman Center in St. Louis, found that graduates have lowered risk of school suspension, pregnancy and course failure.

Since those are issues youth in foster care face at a higher rate than their peers, Clarke said, TOP seemed a good match for the youth Bethany aimed to serve.

Acknowledging the Past

To ensure the program fits the needs of teens nearing their transition out of the child welfare system, Bethany worked with the Wyman Center to condense the curriculum from nine months to about four. They also added their own trauma component, to address the experiences of young people separated from their families and, in many cases, their cultural group.

 “We’re not just focused on the future,” Dyer says. “We acknowledge a lot of the hurt and pain and great things that have happened to youth in the past. When you’re hurt you can’t move on until it’s acknowledged.”

Youth in the teen pregnancy prevention program also benefit from Bethany’s education, employment, mental health and other services. By wrapping everything together, Bethany’s staff aims to help vulnerable youth deal with all of the issues they face as they approach adulthood, rather than focusing solely on sexual choices and abstinence.

“It’s hard to tell someone to value something that has never been a value to them before, to make it meaningful for them,” Dyer says. “By starting with what’s valuable to the youth and working your way through the questions they have themselves and then sharing they do have options when it comes to having sex and remaining abstinent—it’s getting that buy-in and having that trust.”