Help for Teen Parents Is on the Way : Conference Previews Program Aimed at Meeting Many Needs
A 16-year-old mother from Watts had bundled up her month-old infant, taken the bus to school and was ready to sign up for one of the few programs that offer day care while teen-agers finish high school. But the registrar told her sorry; sign-ups closed at 10 a.m. It was 10:10. She could come back at 2 p.m.
Thinking of the impossibility of her alternatives, the girl was so discouraged she almost left school forever. But suddenly, the woman behind the desk had a change of heart and decided to bend the rules for the young mother.
The impulsive sensitivity of that bureaucrat 10 years ago marked a turning point in the girl’s life, said Peggy Russo, coordinator of special projects for the state Department of Health Services’ Maternal and Child Health branch. The 16-year-old is now 26 and a clinical psychologist working for one of the state’s 28 Adolescent Family Life Programs, said Russo, who told the story Thursday at a kickoff conference in Anaheim for Orange County’s own Adolescent Family Life Program (AFLP).
“That’s what these programs are all about: stretching a lot, recognizing the needs of the individual and not making kids conform to your limitations,” Russo told the gathering of 80 social workers, counselors, teachers and other professionals.
Pending final approval by Orange County supervisors, the program is scheduled to start in January. Administered through the Orange County Health Care Agency, it was granted $210,000 by the state Department of Health Services this year.
Under the program, two or three outreach workers, three or four case managers and a network of agencies will be mobilized to find, counsel, treat and educate the estimated 4,000 teen-age mothers and fathers in Orange County.
Last year, 903 babies were born to girls ages 10 to 17 enrolled in Orange County schools. However, an equal number were born to high school dropouts, estimated Bob Olson, program coordinator for the Adolescent Family Life Program. (In addition, it is estimated that thousands of teen-agers obtain abortions in the county each year.)
For many of those who decide to give birth, services are so scattered and confusing that they receive no prenatal care, said Russo. Some find the problems of transportation to clinics, bureaus and schools overwhelming. In addition, mothers in the half dozen school-age-mother programs in the county’s high schools must leave these programs one semester after the child is born. As a result, to continue their schooling, they must obtain day care, which is difficult for them to find and afford.
Orange County’s Adolescent Family Life Program will focus on caring for those who decide to give birth in order to increase the number of high school graduates, reduce the number of low birth-weight infants they bear, and also reduce the number of repeat pregnancies among the county’s teens.
The client-centered program will follow San Francisco’s successful Teen-Age Pregnancy and Parenting (TAPP) program, one of two model programs in the state using the continuous counseling--or case management--approach to funneling young mothers and fathers into the appropriate social and health services. One of the hallmarks of these programs is that caseworkers follow each adolescent parent through the teen years.
(The other model is the Early Parenting Program of the Youth and Family Center in Lawndale.)
Amy Williams, TAPP’s project director, told the group that nationwide only 20% of teen-age mothers finish high school, and about 30% are pregnant again within a year. In contrast, only 2% of TAPP’s teen-age mothers become pregnant again within the first year and 65% graduate from school, said Williams. Among TAPP’s mothers, the incidence of low birth-weight infants is also lower than the national average, she said.
The problem affects fathers as well. While at conception, 23% of the young women and 37% of the young men were high school dropouts, by the time they entered the TAPP program, 50% of the women and 58% of the men had dropped out, Williams said.
Counselors need to pay attention to the rights and emotions of fathers and their parents, said Williams. Few teen-age fathers understand that they may not have the same rights as legal fathers but may have their wages attached for support in later years, she explained. And many counselors never talk with the parents of teen-age fathers, she said.
Dealing With Adolescents
All need to deal with adolescents at their psychological, not physical, level of maturity, said Dr. Deborah Stewart, director of adolescent medicine at UCI Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at UCI Medical School.
Girls who mature physically at an early age--a large number of the teen mothers--often are less socially poised and expressive, she said. Yet, at UCI Medical Center, for example, 15-year-old girls are placed in the adult wards, she said.
Sex education programs that merely offer teen-agers clinical information about pregnancy have not worked, she said, because of the unique psychology of adolescents. Programs dealing with adolescents need to take into account normal developmental stages of the age, such as a preference for concrete versus abstract thinking, said Stewart. Because teens normally understand the here and now better than the abstract future, they have difficulty understanding alternatives, planning for sex or understanding the consequences of sex.
One effective strategy to help girls understand the reality of motherhood, she said, is to ask them to carry around an egg for a day and to remember to feed it, change its diapers and find a sitter for it when they want to go out.
Stewart also said that in her medical practice she favors post-coital contraception for teens who insist they will never have sex and then do. She said she is beginning to offer the method to teens by prescription. It involves taking two birth control pills within 72 hours of intercourse and then two more 12 hours later. Recent studies have shown the method to be 96 to 98% effective, the same as taking birth control pills regularly, she said.
Teens also need to find positive ways to improve their self-esteem, express their independence, take risks and reduce stress--all common reasons for becoming pregnant, she said. In addition, they need to learn decision making and assertiveness skills.
Neither should counselors or educators underestimate the importance of using peers as positive role models, she said. For instance, to teens who say that all their friends are having sex, she points out that nationwide, most youngsters their age do not.
Stewart said she was pleased to see Orange County health officials, educators and social workers banning together to attack the problem of teen-age pregnancy.
But she told the group that she hoped the next conference would include teen-agers themselves. “They can tell us a lot more than we’ll ever know.”