While teen pregnancies are down overall in the United States, hitting record lows since the early 1990s, some areas of the country are experiencing higher teen birth rates than state and national averages. But concerned citizens from schools, teen pregnancy centers, and government agencies are putting their heads together to figure out how to curb the trend — and support the young women who have already given birth.
In Ector County, Texas, where the city of Odessa is the county seat, there are 87.41 teen births per 1,000 — a number that outpaces those for the state by two-to-one, and for the country by about three-to-one. Officials from school programs and the health department met on Friday, Jan. 9 to discuss potential solutions to the growing problem.
The gathering, held in the Mesa Building at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, was sponsored by a local Early Childhood Coalition. Heather Bullis, statewide partnerships and conferences coordinator with the Texas Department of State Health Services in Austin, facilitated the event and started by reviewing the county’s teen birth statistics.
Bullis and the group discussed topics related to teen pregnancy and compared the county’s potential approach to what similar coalitions have done in San Antonio and El Paso. Overall, the group found that lack of education and resources on sexual health for teens were big obstacles in Ector County, and that abstinence-only programs had been met with as little success as comprehensive sex ed.
The participants at the event are now part of the new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Work Group, which is sponsored by the Early Childhood Coalition. Together, they have two main goals: to have teens connect and mentor one another, and to start childhood programs in fourth grade to give girls more self-confidence.
The group also intends to spread their message through social media campaigns to encourage safe sex and prevent teen pregnancy. They also want to work with local groups to provide access to sexual health services for teens and continue offering day care centers for teen moms through local schools to help those girls finish high school.
The move is important in a county where teen mothers between 15 and 19 had a total of 449 births in 2012 alone, according to Bullis.
“To truly impact teen pregnancy rates and change teens’ behavior, it is vital to offer programs that connect with teens emotionally,” says Andrea Nelson, Director of Youth Engagement,CareNet Pregnancy Services of Dupage.
But Ector County isn’t the only area of the country struggling with high teen birth rates. In Western Massachusetts, other groups are coming together not only to fight teen pregnancy but to study the link between poverty and teenage motherhood, as well.
Holyoke, Massachusetts tops the state’s teen pregnancy figures with 46.4 teen births per 1,000 births as of 2013 — a sharp contrast with the state’s average of just 12 births per 1,000 in the same year. In 2012, the number for Holyoke was even higher — at 57.1 teen births per 1,000.
But areas like Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee also have high poverty rates, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. As of 2013, the poverty rate in Holyoke was 31.5%, for Springfield it was 29.4% and in Chicopee 13.6%; such households contain two family members with an income of $15,142 or less.
Helen R. Caulton-Harris, director of the Springfield Health and Human Services Department, said that many teens living in poverty don’t see many options for themselves in terms of education and career, which may influence them to give birth sooner. “Poverty is a cause as well as a consequence of early child bearing,” she said.
Caulton-Harris also added some sobering statistics to the correlation: “Two thirds of families begun by a young unmarried mother are poor. Teen mothers are less likely to complete the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job. The disparity in education tends to affect income level.”
Some of the girls in the area are taking advantage of local alternative education programs, such as that offered by the Care Center, which helps young mothers and pregnant teens get their high school diploma.
Other area groups looking to prevent teen pregnancy include Girls Inc., which educates girls ages five to 12 in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, and area school districts, which offer contraception and preventative education.