Tackling The Issue
Local programs address teen pregnancy and pregnancy prevention.
Thursday, May 7, 1998
Teri Short was 17 and a student at Salinas High in 1982 when she gave birth to her first son. Two years later, she had another child. And then another. There were no "teen mother" programs at the time to help her, she says.
Today, 16 years later, Short runs such a program as Seaside coalition chair for POSTPONE, a year-old, county-wide effort to prevent teen pregnancy, promote responsible parenting and increase the involvement of fathers in their children''s lives. The program, operated through the Monterey County Department of Health, is part of a broader state-wide initiative called the Partnership for Responsible Parenting.
POSTPONE, which stands for Positive Outcomes for Successful Teens through Planning Outreach, Needs Assessment and Education, has a list of goals as ambitious as its name. It works through voluntary coalitions of individuals, businesses, schools and non-governmental organizations at the local level in five cities that have the largest number of teen births: Seaside, Salinas, Soledad, Greenfield and King City.
The program works with teenagers before they are sexually active to persuade them not to get pregnant. It works with teen mothers to persuade them to postpone having a second child. It works with young men to educate them about the responsibilities involved in fathering a child.
"We work throughout the county to help teens postpone pregnancy," says POSTPONE Senior Health Educator Cynthia Joerger, "so they won''t have children while they are still children themselves."
Joerger notes that state statistics for Monterey County show a 9.6 percent decline in the number of births last year to teen women aged 15-19. Those numbers, however, are deceptive, she says. First, they include 18- and 19-year-old women, who are legal adults, and many of whom are married.
"And they exclude teen mothers under 15, the population we are most concerned about," she says. "These girls need even more preparation to know how to be parents."
When you look at county figures for births to teen mothers 17 and younger, compiled over a five-year period, you see much less of a decline: 3.2 percent. Last year, that meant 366 babies born to mothers 17 or younger in Monterey County; 59 of those mothers were 15 or younger.
"It''s not time to get complacent about teen pregnancy and birth," Joerger notes.
Teri Short, working from her Seaside office, takes care of coalition efforts for the entire Peninsula, from Marina to Big Sur. "Seaside may have the highest number of births, but that doesn''t take into account teens who have abortions or miscarriages," she says. Government statistics only cover actual teen births, as abortion is not reportable in the state of California. "There may be more pregnancies at Carmel High than Seaside, but we don''t know about all of them."
Short is uniquely qualified to understand what goes on in the mind of a teen mother, as she was one herself. "I grew up in very dire straits," she says. "My mother was a single mother when I was born. She married soon afterwards, and later divorced." Short had been working odd jobs since she was 10, trying to help her mother put food on their table. "We had no food in that house," she says. "Sometimes we didn''t even have electricity."
Short was one of the few black students at Salinas High, which she says didn''t make her situation any easier. She was also abused by visitors to her house, she says. "I had no self-esteem. I didn''t know what was ''normal.'' That''s probably why I was a teen mom."
At 17, she got pregnant while taking birth control pills. Their effectiveness was compromised by the heavy dose of antibiotics she was on for what doctors feared was mononucleosis. She dropped out of school to make ends meet.
"There was no intervention," she says. "Sometimes I didn''t go to school for a month, and no truant officer came to the house." Then she had two more children, and lived as a single mother for 14 years. "I kept repeating the same mistake," she admits. When her second child was born 12 years ago, she was working as a manager in a Carmel store, had a nice apartment and a car, and thought it would be no great burden to have two children. "You can be stupid when you''re 20," she says. "I was so naive. That''s why I understand these kids. I was there. I can show them my scars. When I see their glazed-over faces, I know what they''re going through."
Programs like POSTPONE can really work, Short believes, by encouraging teens to talk with adults about their concerns. She points to a recent survey of Peninsula teenagers that shows 76 percent of teens want to get their information about sex from their parents. Yet most of those teens say they actually get their information from friends, kids their own age.
Community sponsorship of POSTPONE projects is the key to the program''s growth and continued success, she says, pointing to the group''s recent teen poster contest, which was underwritten by many local businesses.
For those teenage girls who do get pregnant and decide to carry their babies to term, the Young Families in Our Libraries program is there to help them raise their infants in an atmosphere of caring and literacy.
The program was created in the fall of 1995 as a research project through Stanford University. More than 100 teen mothers in the Salinas area were chosen to participate in a program aimed at increasing literacy in the homes of "at-risk" young families. Several times a week, the young mothers (and a few young fathers) would come to the Women, Infant, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC) Center in East Salinas for classes on parenting skills, for reading and singing sessions with their young children, and to study for their high school equivalency diplomas. The program was run jointly by the Salinas Adult School, which provided the curriculum; the Salinas Public Library, which provided high quality children''s literature and voluntary tutors for the mothers; and WIC, which provided the building for meetings and the pool of young mothers to take part in the project.
The research project ended last fall, but was given such good reviews that the program has continued at the East Salinas WIC Center by cobbling together various other grants, says Project Specialist Robin Shick.
On Wednesday afternoons, young mothers gather at the WIC Center to sing and read with their infants. "When we started the program some of the fathers came, but they stopped coming and it became a mother''s group," Shick says. "But we want the fathers to come, and the grandparents. This is for the family."
Baby-sitting is provided while the young mothers study with their tutors for the GED. And mothers who come twice a month receive a children''s book to take home, "to reinforce the importance of reading in the home," Shick says.
The Salinas Young Parents in the Libraries Program is now considered a model for the entire state. They have written a manual other libraries and social programs can use to develop similar teen parent literacy programs.
"We''ve shown our program increases literacy and parenting skills, and increases the likelihood of these mothers finishing school," Shick says, leafing through project evaluation results compiled by Stanford early this year. "By the end of the two-year pilot, 80 percent of the mothers had either graduated or were almost finished with high school. And they''ve learned they are the most important teachers in their child''s life."