A visit to the local genitourinary medicine clinic may not be your first choice for an afternoon out. But for foster carers in Cheshire acting as peer mentors on sexual health, it is a key part of their training.
The county runs a unique programme which aims to help foster carers talk to young people about sexual health, and ultimately to begin to tackle the high rates of conception and sexually transmitted infections among looked-after young
people. Rather than targeting all 400 odd foster families in the county, the idea was to train a dozen carers to become mentors, who in turn provide both formal training sessions and support now and again for other carers around sexual health.
Helen Keaney-Cheetham, foster care training officer in Cheshire, believes it is crucial that foster carers are able to talk to young people about their sexual health. She says: “Young people in care tell us they don’t want to talk to a social worker or a teacher about sexual health issues. They would like to talk to their parents but they can’t, so they want to talk to the people they live with instead. If they know that person isn’t going to be fazed by what they say, that’s going to help them to feel comfortable and help their self-esteem.”
Keaney-Cheetham also believes that peer education is an effective way of reaching carers. She explains: “We’ve been running a sexual health training programme in Cheshire for 11 years, but carers weren’t using it. Carers are best at talking to other carers. They’ve got the knowledge, experience and expertise. They live it.”
Sue Betteridge, a foster carer for 12 years, is one of the sexual health peer mentors. She describes the training as the best she’s ever attended. “I got a lot out of it, including getting rid of a few gremlins of my own. Before I did the training, I’d get embarrassed talking about sexual issues which didn’t help the young people to feel comfortable. Now I’m a lot more confident and I find the kids come to me to talk about things.”
Betteridge agrees that foster carers are more likely to listen to someone in the same position as themselves. “A lot of foster carers don’t take kindly to nine-to-five social workers spouting to them. We go on training courses and listen to professionals but you often learn more from talking to other carers during the coffee breaks. With peer training, it’s a lot more real.”
The programme aims to challenge foster carers’ own prejudices and inhibitions, and to get them to see sexual health as central to young people’s well being.
Collette Jones, sexual health trainer and pathway planner for looked-after young people, says that before the programme was introduced, many carers were uncomfortable about sexual identity. “Some of the views and comments I’d hear weren’t what you’d call politically correct. I was working with one young man who I felt might be questioning his sexual orientation. His carer would say, ‘When you’re grown up and have kids of your own’, without any awareness that it might not happen.”
The training also aims to help carers feel comfortable about the kind of language young people use to talk about sex and to realise that they do not intend to cause offence. Jones explains: “If you’re offended by the language they’re using you’re likely to walk away and could miss the
opportunity to talk about some extremely important issues.”
Two years on from the mentors receiving their training, Jones believes there are already signs that the peer education approach is working. She says: “I’m finding that carers and young people are more comfortable talking about sexual health. It’s having a ripple effect.”
– For more details, e-mail: helen.keaney-chee firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Cheshire social services on 01244 606714.
Scheme: Sexual health peer education programme – foster care pilot.
Staffing: Training co-ordinator, two experienced trainers,12 foster carers to act as mentors.
Inspiration: A desire to improve foster carers’ awareness and knowledge of sexual health so they can better support the young people they are looking after.
Cost: £10,000 in the first year for training costs, plus £10,000 for expert scrutiny by the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University.