Teen pregnancy: Nine-times-greater-chance for parents to live in poverty|[07/08/08]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 8, 2008

This is the final part in a series of stories on teen pregnancy.

A waterfall.

It’s the image that motivational speaker Sharonda Medina uses to describe the extensive reach needed to prevent the community problem that is teen pregnancy.

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Efforts are often put in place at the end of the “waterfall,” when it’s too late.

“We don’t have the people at the top,” she said. “It’s an issue for all of us.”

Medina, a founder of Legacy Leadership and the former executive director of the Center for Pregnancy Choices, believes teen pregnancy is only a symptom of a larger problem plaguing all communities.

“If you have a child born to a pregnant teen, the mother will have an increased likelihood of not getting a high school education. Also, there’s a nine-times-greater-chance for them to live in poverty. There are all sorts of risk factors,” she said. “We need more complex intervention.”

In 2006, 165 teenage girls out of 3,734 ages 10 to 19 in Warren County became pregnant and 135 of them gave birth. The numbers show an increase of 23 pregnant teens over the previous year, when 142 out of 3,611 were pregnant. And, though the issue has been taken to the national stage with a teen television star giving birth and a group of teens in Massachusetts forming a pact to get pregnant, its effects are hitting closer to home as well.

The pregnancy rate in Warren County showed 44.2 of every 1,000 teen girls were pregnant in 2006, the most recent data from the Mississippi Department of Health. In Mississippi the same year, 41 out of every 1,000 teens were pregnant.

“We’re higher than the whole state. That shows to me that we have a significant problem,” said Kay Lee, director of Vicksburg Family Development Services.

Agencies unite

A collaboration of agencies providing teen pregnancy prevention and support began meeting this year to start a fight.

The effort actually was begun in 1995 after a community impact plan was drawn by the United Way of West Central Mississippi, identifying teen pregnancy as the No. 1 concern across five counties. That year, the Mississippi Health Department reported 229 pregnant teenagers in Warren County.

“We pulled together focus groups for each of the five targeted areas and drafted a plan and got recommendations,” said Twila Vantrease, chief operating officer for the Girl Scout Council of Middle Mississippi and a leader of the local coalition.

The costsThe public, through taxes, pays much of the cost of caring for pregnant teens and their children. In 2004 in Mississippi:Total of $135 million49% federal costs51% state costs$26 million for public health care$8 million for child welfare$18 million for incarceration$50 million in lost tax revenue, due to decreased earnings and spending$3,318 – average annual cost associated with a child born to a mother 17 or younger$2.7 billion paid by taxpayers between 1991 and 2004, when more than 116,900 teen births were countedTo joinFor information about the teen pregnancy prevention coalition or to join the effort, call Kay Lee at Vicksburg Family Development at 601-638-1336.A collaboration of local agencies – United Way, the Child Abuse Prevention Center, Vicksburg Family Development Services and the Girl Scouts – formed to draft a grant to begin tackling the issue of teen pregnancy in Warren County and the surrounding areas. The coalition has been meeting about once or twice each month, determining ways to bring more awareness, resources and action to prevent teen pregnancy here.

“We have to work as a village,” Vantrease said.

So far, the group has used the first of three $10,000 grants to develop a resource center at Vicksburg Family Development with videos and books about preventing teen pregnancy; created boxed programs that include resources, such as crafts, books and art related to teen pregnancy prevention for other groups to use; and offered camps for teenage girls and boys to discuss issues they see with teen pregnancy.

“These are the ones who make a difference. They are the ones making the decisions,” said Mimi Jeffers, leader of the camp sessions. “They mirrored what we’ve identified are problems.”

Abstinence pushed

Thirteen-year-old Marcus James is one teen who has heeded the call. He, along with others in the community, attended the retreat Jeffers led over spring break and talked about abstinence and making smart choices. He said he has plans to abstain from sexual activity and lead others to make good decisions.

“No matter what, I don’t listen to what people tell me to do. I stick to the positive,” he said. “Sex…leads to bad consequences.”

The next step for the coalition is to have more involvement from teens. Medina and others believe it’s the only way to really make a difference.

“We have to have other teens invested in the issue. So often you have caring adults sitting around a table,” she said. “The key to prevention is bringing in other teens to the table. They see teen pregnancy as a challenge. If you look at a 15-year-old and say, ‘What’s the impact?’ you have ripple effects that are powerful.”

Risks involved

The risks of teen pregnancy are multi-fold. One is the effect on a teen’s body.

“You have an increase in toxemia, high blood pressure, kidney problems, more premature deliveries and it’s the leading cause of infant mortality,” said Dr. LeDon Langston, an obstetrics and gynecology consultant for the Mississippi Department of Health. “Their bodies just aren’t ready for delivering a baby.”

Other health risks include contracting sexually transmitted diseases, retardation and lung disease.

Teen mothers “tend to receive late prenatal care or hide their pregnancy,” Langston said. “They don’t understand the importance of prenatal care.”

Along with poor health, teen mothers and their children often suffer social problems, such as poverty, neglect and abuse. Children of teen parents also are more likely to have a child during their teenage years, statistics show.

One of the more universal effects teen pregnancy has on society is its cost to taxpayers, who, each year, take on a significant financial burden when it comes to funding teen pregnancy. In 2004, the cost to taxpayers in Mississippi associated with teen childbearing was about $135 million, which means $1,344 in tax money went for each teen birth, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. The cost to younger teens, ages 17 and younger, is greater – about $3,318. Nationally, teen births cost Americans about $9.1 billion a year.

Because the teen birth rate declined 27 percent in Mississippi between 1991 and 2004, Mississippians saved about $92 million in 2004. Medina said, by simply looking at the cost of teen pregnancy, it is clear that everyone is affected.

“We need to look at what is the root and collaborate as a community,” she said. “It’s not a social problem we want in our community. If we rally, I think we can decrease (the teen pregnancy rate) in the next two to five years.”

Trying to chop the number of teen pregnancies does not, however, mean measures of support for teen parents will cease.

“No one is saying teen pregnancy is OK. But, there are people who support pregnant teens,” Medina said.

The coalition plans to continue meeting, providing programs and raising awareness to meet its goal.

“We can’t save every child, but we can provide a positive environment,” Jeffers said.