Providing sex and relationships education for looked-after children: a qualitative exploration of how personal and institutional factors promote or limit the experience of role ambiguity, conflict and overload among caregivers

Catherine Nixon, Lawrie Elliott, Marion Henderson

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Objectives To explore how personal and institutional factors promote or limit caregivers promoting sexual health and relationships (SHR) among looked-after children (LAC). In so doing, develop existing research dominated by atheoretical accounts of the facilitators and barriers of SHR promotion in care settings. Design Qualitative semistructured interview study. Setting UK social services, residential children's homes and foster care. Participants 22 caregivers of LAC, including 9 foster carers, 8 residential carers and 5 social workers; half of whom had received SHR training. Methods In-depth interviews explored barriers/facilitators to SHR discussions, and how these shaped caregivers' experiences of discussing SHR with LAC. Data were systematically analysed using predetermined research questions and themes identified from reading transcripts. Role theory was used to explore caregivers' understanding of their role. Results SHR policies clarified role expectations and increased acceptability of discussing SHR. Training increased knowledge and confidence, and supported caregivers to reflect on how personally held values impacted practice. Identified training gaps were how to: (1) Discuss SHR with LAC demonstrating problematic sexual behaviours. (2) Record the SHR discussions that had occurred in LAC's health plans. Contrary to previous findings, caregivers regularly discussed SHR with LAC. Competing demands on time resulted in prioritisation of discussions for sexually active LAC and those 'at risk' of sexual exploitation/harm. Interagency working addressed gaps in SHR provision. SHR discussions placed emotional burdens on caregivers. Caregivers worried about allegations being made against them by LAC. Managerial/pastoral support and 'safe care' procedures minimised these harms. Conclusions While acknowledging the existing level of SHR promotion for LAC there is scope to more firmly embed this into the role of caregivers. Care needs to be taken to avoid role ambiguity and tension when doing so. Providing SHR policies and training, promoting interagency working and providing pastoral support are important steps towards achieving this.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere025075
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2019


  • caregivers
  • looked-after children
  • qualitative research
  • sexual health
  • social workers

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