Making sex safe

Young women in care are massively
over-represented in the figures for teenage pregnancies. The
Hearsex project is using care leavers to provide advice on sex
education in children’s homes. Graham Hopkins reports.

The shock of Britain leading Europe on teenage
pregnancy rates jolted the government into action. As usual, it’s
the socially excluded that are overwhelmingly included in such
statistics. For example, by age 16, one in four young women in care
is pregnant.

As a
society we have historically fumbled our way in making an awkward
bed for sex education to lie in. This truism is being challenged by
the Hearsex project, which is providing advice and information on
body changes, relationships, contraception, infections, pregnancy
and safer sex to young people aged over 11 in residential care in
Birmingham. And it is training care leavers not only to provide the
service but also to qualify as BTEC peer educators.

nearly three-quarters of those leaving care at 16 do so without
qualifications, compared with 4 per cent of the population as a
whole, this double whammy of educational achievement and providing
a service has given the 10 young people involved, aged 16-21,
immense self-esteem and confidence, says June Thompson, the BTEC

Chantelle Gordon, aged 18,
working towards her BTEC, believes that having been in care herself
helps: “I think in some senses children in social services have
problems talking to or trusting adults – so this is a way around

I was at school, we had what we used to call the Tampax Lady,” she
continues. “We watched a video and had one session where we had to
put condoms on bananas. But I never had the information I have now
when I was younger. Adults would tell you things in technical terms
because they wouldn’t know what the new lingo for those things was.
Young people don’t see us as a threat, they see us on their level –
and they’re more at ease because it’s young people talking to

However, Dean Sharpe, 18, one of
two young people who obtained his BTEC last year and who
accompanies and supports Chantelle on her visits to care homes,
believes age is not always a winning factor. “It can help but they
also say ‘well you’re the same age as us or a bit older, so what do
you know?’ so it can work the other way.”

the less, Dean is optimistic that his qualification will count for
something: “I am hoping to do some work with young people and also
voluntary work with Healthy Gay Life to gain more experience and
use the skills I obtained in my BTEC,” he says.

Subjects covered have not been
restricted to sexual health matters and the risk factors. “It’s
also about drugs and bullying, and relationships, which are very
important for people in the care system because relationships are
usually brief,” says Thompson.

Hearsex is concentrating on
Birmingham’s 28 children’s homes for now. “We’re not getting into
foster care. We have a backlog of referrals at the moment,” says
Gayner Miller, co-ordinator for Hearsex.

Bessant, who manages the project, says that young mothers were
targeted and four recruited for the course: “They do enjoy doing
something and getting out of the house,” she adds.

people in care choose whether to attend the sessions, which are
always evaluated. The forms list words to best describe the
session: “Chillin, Wicked, Cool, Sorted, Embarrassing, Boring,
Crap, Stupid.” Responses have been very positive, with young people
learning to “feel good about myself”, “always wear protection” and
“chill out about my body”. Thirty-three young people out of 43 have
asked for more sessions. Wicked, indeed.

think that when you leave the care system, you want to leave that
behind and get on with your future,” adds Chantelle. “But you can
show young people that you can succeed, that’s it’s okay to be in
the care system, that there’s nothing wrong. I like to see myself
as a role model. We’re evidence that people can

success can be very healthy. Just like sex, in fact.


SCHEME: Hearsex project – care leavers
providing information and support on sexual health for young people
in care.

LOCATION: Birmingham.

STAFFING: Co-ordinator and development worker
(both half-time posts).

INSPIRATION: Part of carrying out the sexual
health strategy.

COST: About £30,000.


– For more information on Hearsex call Gayner
Miller on 0121 464 1229

– A free information pack is available. For
more on BTEC accreditation call UK Youth on 0207 242 4045


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