By Elizabeth Darling, Commissioner, Administration on Children, Youth and Families
The COVID pandemic presents unprecedented challenges to at-risk youth and families and those we serve through our programs at the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) in the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). FYSB partners with and funds states, tribal organizations, and hundreds of faith-based and community organizations that work every day to reduce the risk of youth homelessness, domestic violence and adolescent pregnancy.
Due to sheltering-in-place orders and school and community center closings, the majority of FYSB’s Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (APP) programs were not able to continue their sexual risk avoidance (SRAE) programs in person. APP programs have worked diligently to continue to engage youth through virtual platforms and through social media, including the We Think Twice campaign – designed with teens, for teens - to promote positive messaging about future goals, decision-making, dating, tips for healthy relationships, and how to avoiding risky behaviors that can impact youth development and future success. Even in the midst of COVID, grantees are finding ways to support families and youth virtually with positive, research-based curriculum.
As America recovers, we look forward to children and young people getting back to school where they are more likely to be connected to vital support systems that enhance learning and well-being.
At ACYF, we believe that parents are the primary educators and influencers of their children. All youth deserve accurate, honest messages and strategies that increase their protective factors. Research shows that “parent engagement in schools is closely linked to better student behavior, higher academic achievement, and enhanced social skills. Parent engagement also makes it more likely that children and adolescents will avoid unhealthy behaviors, such as sexual risk behaviors and substance use.
One roadmap to success model that many FYSB-funded grantees teach to young people is the success sequence – 1) graduate from high school; 2) get a full-time job; and 3) get married before having children – in that order. Studies show that young people and millennials who follow this sequence are more likely to avoid poverty, achieve economic stability and experience optimal health. Although the growth and learning path is seldom a straight trajectory, when young people veer from this course, we can and should encourage them to get back on the path of proven success.
Sadly, according to the most recent national estimates of Voices of Youth Count, an initiative of Chapin Hall, at the University of Chicago, youth with less than a high school diploma had a 346% higher risk of homelessness! Unmarried parenting youth had a 200% higher risk of homelessness. Youth reporting annual household income of less than $24,000 had a 162% higher risk of homelessness.
Dr. John Van Epp, Ph.D., founder and president of Love Thinks LLC, researcher and clinical counselor in private practice with 25 years of experience, recently discussed relationship formation research in the context of the success sequence with sexual risk avoidance education (SRAE) grantees. His goal was to “identify the skills that help young people minimize sexual risk and increase successful healthy relationship and marriage outcomes.” He said even though we know the data about what works, it has not been the case in practice.
For example, the trend for many years has been “baby first, marriage later.” Young people have been co-habitating in what they think is a “risk-free” step in a relationship, even though it also greatly increases the chances of unplanned pregnancy, and a future break-up. The most secure relationship is marriage, he explained.
Unfortunately, most federal youth-serving human service programs do not promote marriage as a strategy to avoid poverty or achieve optimal physical and mental health.
At ACYF, we want all young people to thrive, no matter their current challenges! That’s why it’s worth teaching them the benefits of all parts of the success sequence -- of graduating from high school, getting a full-time job, and being married before having children.