TANF: Helping parents have the talk

(Note: This story is part of an Idaho Reports series on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.) 

By Nishant Mohan, Idaho Reports

When it came time to give her 14-year-old children “the talk,” Juanita Aguilar found it difficult.

“I tried to have the conversation with them before,” said Aguilar, a parent of four. “But it’s even harder to talk about sex and protection when you’re not talking with them about other things.”

Aguilar attended Southwest District Health’s Bridging the Gap Dinner, which seeks to help parents overcome barriers to talking with their children about sex, for the second time in early April. Other health districts host similar dinner throughout Idaho, paid for largely by federal welfare dollars appropriated to prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Aguilar, who works as a registered dietitian for Southwest District Health, has 14-year-old twins, a boy and girl. She said high school student volunteers at the dinners helped her understand the need to start a conversation and how to make it less awkward.

“They were brutally honest,” Aguilar said. “I think we needed to hear that.”

She said since the first dinner she attended, she has successfully talked with her 14-year-olds about sex.

Training parents to have “the talk” with their children and training teenagers to turn down sexual advances or use contraceptives is a far cry from the cash handouts many may imagine welfare to be.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant is what most people know as Clinton-era welfare reform. In Idaho, fewer than 100 people in Idaho receive basic assistance through this grant, and the checks, which are limited to $309 per month for a maximum of 24 months per lifetime, come with a requirement of employment or job training participation.

Idaho spends the rest of the TANF grant on a variety of other programs from childcare to workforce training. (Learn more about TANF by watching the April 7 episode of Idaho Reports.)

The Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (APP) program, which is paid for in part by $167,000 of TANF money, uses a combination of events, a curriculum, and a youth group to help teenagers avoid getting pregnant. One of the four goals outlined in TANF is to “prevent and reduce the incidence of out of wedlock pregnancies.”

Aguilar said she and the other parents saw the student volunteers there as such a valuable resource, they stayed for another half hour past the set end of the dinner. She said she learned that she needs to talk with her children more about what they’re doing in general, so when it comes time to ask about sex, it’s less awkward.

“I’m working on the next one who’s eleven years old.” Aguilar said. “We’re working on just having regular conversations with him – things that interest us both.”

Another part of the districts’ adolescent pregnancy prevention programs is the Reducing the Risk Curriculum. The curriculum is a set of 16 sessions added to high school lesson plans, usually health or home economics, that give teens advice on how to avoid having sex and how to have safe sex.

Ana Vidales, health educator at Southwest District Health, said the nature of the curriculum requires a letter to be sent home with students in the modified classes for their parents to approve their children’s participation.

This program is not at as many schools as Vidales would like. A lack of funding and inconvenience in modifying existing schedules are factors, she said, but another barrier is that not all schools want the program in the first place.

“If the principals or board members, or someone involved in approving the program has a different point of view, it can be difficult,” Vidales said. “I understand not everyone’s going to like what I have to say, but there’s cold hard facts. Sex is happening and it’s not just something deviant people do.”

Currently, at least 460 high school students around the state receive the curriculum. Vidales said students take a pre-survey and post-survey before and after going through the curriculum to test their knowledge on contraceptives and sexually transmitted infections.

Vidales said some graduates of the curriculum are able to take a leadership position by working with parents and educators to reach out to their fellow students in the Youth-Adult Partnership, also part of the program. Vidales said students have even held their own informational nights for parents.

Heather Gagliano, project manager at Central District Health said the students in the pregnancy prevention programs quickly learn the importance of being able to ask questions safely.

“I was observing one of the nurses and a student asked a question and a couple students started giggling. Immediately a couple other kids said, ‘Hey, any question is safe here,’” Gagliano said. “It was really neat to see that. The students supported each other.”

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