Progress on teen pregnancy imperiled

California has been a national leader in reducing teen-age pregnancy over the past two decades. But state budget cuts now threaten the programs that helped lead that transformation.

Nationally, the teen pregnancy rate dropped by more than 40 percent since it peaked in 1990, according to a report released by the Guttmacher Institute earlier this month. In California, the teen birthrate was cut in half between 1991 and 2008.

“The nation has made extraordinary progress in preventing too-early pregnancies,” said Bill Albert, Chief Program Officer at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

The “magic formula of less sex and more contraception” caused the steadily declining rates of teenaged mothers over the past two decades, Albert said. The decline in the past decade, he added, is mostly from more use of birth control.

Teens are more aware of the challenges of becoming parents, too, thanks to prevention efforts and recently successful shows like MTV’s “Teen Mom,” Albert said.

Comprehensive sex education brought the teen birthrate down in California, said Dana Goodrow, executive director of Teen Now California, an advocacy group focused on preventing teen pregnancies.

But several successful programs have been cut, reduced or suspended in the past few years as a result of the state’s budget crunch, Goodrow said.

They include a prevention program aimed at boys who live in areas with the highest rates of teen pregnancies, cut in 2008, and a program that helped teen moms stay in school, Cal-Learn, which had its funding suspended in last year’s budget.

Another program aimed at keeping teen moms in school, The California School Age Families Education, or Cal-SAFE, is now part of a block grant that funds several school programs. Since the funding for Cal-SAFE changed in 2009, levels of participation have dropped by about 39 percent, according to an evaluation of the program’s first 11 years.

Cal-SAFE is a school-based program that provides childcare and other services to help teen moms to finish their high school education. Teenagers in the program are much more likely than other teen moms to graduate, and much less likely to have a second child before adulthood.

“We made great progress over the last decade and a half,” Goodrow said, “and it’s hard to see the program diminished in the way.”

California once had soaring teen birth rates, among the highest in the nation in the 1990s. When those numbers were cut in half by 2005, the drop significantly outpaced the national reduction in teen births over the same time period.

California is the only state in the nation that never applied for or accepted federal funding for abstinence-only sex education programs. That decision, Goodrow said, was crucial to California’s success in reducing the number of teen moms.

The choice to reject the federal version of sex ed was made by Republican governor Pete Wilson in the 1990s. The state tried the abstinence-only approach between 1992 and 1995. That ended abruptly after an evaluation showed the program didn’t actually reduce the number of teens who decided to have sex.

Comprehensive sex education took its place, and teaching abstinence became one part of a larger lesson about positive relationships, how to access medical care and birth control and how to say no to sexual encounters.

“When teens are given accurate information,” Goodrow said, “they make better choices.”

Also important is that information has an emotional resonance for teens, said Anna Alcayde.

Alcayde works for Cal-SAFE, where part of her job is making teens understand the challenge of too-young motherhood. She was a mom at age 16.

Alcayde, now 22 years old and living in Escondido, said information about using condoms – which is what she remembers from her sex ed class at school – wasn’t enough for her.

“They just give you a little presentation,” Alcayde said. “They don’t give you any information about what it’s like being a teen mom.”

“I thought since I used to watch over my younger siblings, well, it’s kind of like that,” she added, noting that many of the pregnant teens she sees have the same kind of attitude.

Prevention efforts at the Cal-SAFE program where Alcayde works include making sure that teen moms from different backgrounds speak to young people about their experiences.

Pregnancy prevention programs were not always tailored to particular ethnic and racial groups, said Goodrow of Teen Now California.

That lack of outreach was a mistake, said Bill Albert of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, as some prevention messages could be off-putting in different contexts.

Nationally, the birthrates for Latina and African-American teens were twice that of white teens in 2008, according to the Guttmacher Institute report.

The birthrate for young Latinas in California was about 50 births per 1,000 teens in 2009, the most recent statistics, complied by the California Department of Public Health. The birthrate for white teens was about 12 per 1,000, and rates for African Americans were about 38 births per 1,000 teenaged girls.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy now runs a prevention programs aimed specifically at Latinos.

“When you talk about teen pregnancy and preventing teen pregnancy, sometimes that message is inadvertently heard as an anti-family message,” Albert said. “It may come off as sounding anti-baby.”

Also, Albert said, most parents, Latino or not, don’t understand that they are the single biggest influencer of a child’s sexual choices. They underestimate how much an honest conversation about sex can influence their kids.

“Parents did not feel that they had anything to communicate to their kids about sex,” said Beatriz Campos, the health and environment program manager at the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which trains youth and parents to be prevention educators as part of their pregnancy prevention program.

The goal of their prevention program became to have discussions about a successful life rather than about sex, and to help kids understand how early parenthood could derail their life plans, Campos said.

Parents were also coached about how to be more open to discussions about sex, whether that was a simple question about where babies come from, or trickier talks about sexual orientation or becoming sexual active.

Anna Alcayde said she didn’t talk to her mom about sex until after she was pregnant, though she’d been in a sexual relationship with the father of her child for several years by then.

“I guess she thought we would never do something like that,” Alcayde said. Her mother did eventually take her to a clinic where she got birth control, after her pregnancy. Alcayde said her mother also forbid her to get an abortion or put her child up for adoption, an experience she described as common among Latina youth.

She wishes she’d gotten more information about preventing pregnancy and what it’s really like to be a young mother earlier in her life. Not even a show like “16 and Pregnant” really captures how difficult teen motherhood is, Alcayde said.

She graduated from high school just a few months late with the help of Cal-SAFE, but her success was hard earned.

“You have to come home and be with the baby, and you’ve got all of the homework,” Alcayde said. “It’s not as easy as some girls make it sound.”

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