A seventh-grader in stretch pants and high-top tennies, her swollen midsection hidden by a roomy overblouse, took her place in a classroom circle at McAlister School in Pacoima, an optional public school for pregnant girls. She suppressed a giggle as discussion leader Gilda Mathews explained the custom of chaperoned-only dates in her native Puerto Rico.
Another girl, incredulous, asked, “Did your date have to take someone along, too?”
No, Mathews said, smiling and smoothly leading the group into a discussion of pregnancy and what it means in terms of changing relationships and changing responsibilities.
Mathews is a clinical social worker with El Nido Services, a nonprofit child and youth counseling agency that has recently received a $311,000 state grant in support of its Adolescent Family Life Project, which coordinates a network of free services for pregnant teen-agers and teen-age parents.
One of these services is counseling sessions at McAlister and at Thomas Riley School; this academic year 1,200 pregnant Los Angeles Unified School District students have chosen, on a voluntary basis, to continue their education at one of these schools while awaiting birth of their babies.
On a recent Wednesday morning at McAlister, some of these girls talked candidly about their babies’ fathers--most of them no longer had ongoing relationships--and about abortion--only one girl in this group of 13 had even considered it briefly--and about their changing bodies. Asked how pregnancy had made things different, one girl replied, “No more jeans!”
But they expressed, too, hurtful experiences--abandonment by old friends who no longer considered them suitable party companions, conflicts with their parents. “My father’s confused,” said Cathy, 13. “One minute he wants it (the baby). The next minute he doesn’t want anything to do with it. Every time he talks about adoption I just leave the room. He’s taking it out on my mother” for not insisting on an abortion when there was still time.
It is apparent as these teen-age mothers-to-be talk that, for the most part, they have given little or no thought to tomorrow, just as they appear to have given little thought to yesterday, to the possibility that a sexual relationship could lead to pregnancy.
Liz, a 10th-grader, shrugged and said, “I don’t mind having a baby. I like kids.”
Only five girls of the 13 had ever used birth control. Liza said she’d had some pills but “my mother found them and threw them out.”
Marriage Not Expected
They are rather casual about pregnancy--no, they would not choose not to be pregnant. And, no, they do not expect, nor do they want, to marry their babies’ fathers. Camilla, a sophomore, said, “I tell him it isn’t his baby so he won’t call.” Her boyfriend would want to be involved, another girl said, but “he’s in jail.”
For most girls, counselor Mathews said, “There’s very little awareness of the responsibility--and the consequences. Their mothers become the mothers. And they keep on doing what they’re doing.”
A 1984-85 profile of clients in El Nido’s teen-age parent programs--the original program serving South Central Los Angeles and the newer San Fernando Valley program--shows that the majority of pregnant clients were 16 or younger, reflecting a downward trend from the previous year. However, only 9% of the fathers were 16 or under and most were between 17 and 20.
Almost 70% of the girls lived with their single mothers while pregnant and, both during pregnancy and after the birth of their babies, their parents, welfare and the baby’s father were their primary sources of financial support, with welfare the number one source after birth of the baby.
There are two ways in which teen-age parents may receive public assistance under Aid to Families With Dependent Children. If their own parents are receiving aid, the new baby may be added. If the teen parent(s) and baby are living on their own, they may qualify as needy caretakers. The young parents may also be eligible for WIC (Women, Infants and Children), a federal nutrition program, and for food stamps.
(By county Department of Public Social Services criteria, for example, the needy parent plus one child receives $474 a month, a needy parent plus two children, $587.)
Teen-Age Birth Statistics
That there is a need for a comprehensive services program for teen-age parents is borne out by statistics for 1984 (the most recent available) from the county. In that year there were 360 live births to girls under 15 and 16, 704 live births to girls between 15 and 19. (In California, 53,000 babies are born each year to teen-agers.) According to El Nido, Los Angeles County has the second highest U.S. metropolitan area rate of fertility for girls in the latter age group, a rate that translates to about 68 births per 1,000 population. (Only Houston is higher.)
The highest fertility rates are for blacks and Latinos, the two major target groups of the El Nido program.
Pregnancy is one of the leading causes of high school drop-outs, and keeping the girls in school until graduation is one objective of the program. McAlister School, with four sites, and Thomas Riley, with three sites, offer pregnant girls a comfortable, non-threatening environment during their pregnancies.
At these schools for pregnant teen-age minors, students continue with basic academic courses leading to graduation but they receive, too, parenting classes and a special physical fitness course geared to preparing girls for labor, delivery and postnatal recovery. (Lowbirth-weight rates, highest in women under 20, are directly linked to maternal health and nutrition.) As an adjunct to the school curriculum, El Nido provides both one-on-one and group counseling.
Frequently, babies born to teen-age mothers still in school are an additional mouth to feed in a family already struggling for economic survival. And, inevitably, the baby’s arrival creates new tensions and conflicts within the family unit. El Nido research has found these teen parents often “woefully lacking” in basic child-care skill and with no realistic view of the demands of parenting.
El Nido, founded 60 years ago, has conducted a counseling program for pregnant teen-agers since 1979 but, with its current state grant, and United Way funding, it is able to coordinate all of the health, counseling and social services available to teens both during pregnancy and after their babies are born. These include vocational counseling, infant day care and transportation to services.
Learning the System
There is a full range of services available, free, in the community, said Fritzie Davis, El Nido’s executive director, “if you know how to get them.” But most teen-agers do not know how to maneuver through the systems.
Officially, the program is called the Adolescent Family Life Project, but around El Nido the staff calls it simply Good Start.
The new grant will enable El Nido to serve about 650 teen-age clients, and has made it possible to add six case managers and two community organizing specialists to work with teen fathers and do considerable outreach in clients’ homes, working with the entire family to help build support.
Preparing the adolescent mothers and fathers for reality is the bottom line. Said Davis of the girls, “Their expectations are that they’re going to have these dolls they’re going to be able to love and these dolls are going to love them. It doesn’t work out that way for very long.”
“Many times the fathers get neglected,” said Stacy Banks, program director for South Central L.A. “We help them to see the involvement does not have to be just financial. They can be a part of their child’s life. That’s new, particularly in the black community.”
Banks estimates that more than 60% of the girls with whom she works report “good” relationships with the child’s father, whereas in the San Fernando Valley, according to area director Paul Leibowitz, that dips to below half. He explained, “I think a large percentage of our clients are undocumented. (The girls) are very much afraid there’ll be some kind of retribution if they name the father.”
Nonetheless, Leibowitz said, “We work very hard not only to involve the father but to dispel some of the myths . . . that fathers are sort of gadflies just out to have a good time and exploit these girls. Many of these young men do have a lot of caring; if not for the girl as a mate, they care very much for the baby’s welfare. If we don’t discount them very often they will respond in a positive way.”
He added, “These are young people desperately trying to define their roles.”
A major goal of the program is, as Leibowitz put it, to help the young people understand that “they’re not necessarily entrapped,” their lives aren’t ruined, college is not out of the question--in other words, to break the pattern of dropping out of school to find jobs and finding instead the frustration of low-paying, unskilled work.
Beyond that, counselors hope to prevent additional pregnancies and situations leading to child abuse among their clients, and just to be there for girls going through the most stressful period of their lives.
El Nido gets word of its services out through channels most appropriate to the age group it serves and these include rock radio stations and bulletin boards at teen centers.
Recently, in South Central, El Nido sponsored a session where for the first time adults who had coped successfully with teen parenting and had gone on to successful careers came to share their experiences, a kind of pep talk. Another session, for teen fathers, delved into such areas as paternity rights. But, Banks acknowledged, that one didn’t get much of a turnout. She said, “Jobs, that’s really the focus” for the fathers.
In the San Fernando Valley areas served by El Nido, the young Latino clients frequently are dealing not only with the trauma of pregnancy but with cultural disorientation as well.
Banks said the nature of the problem is somewhat different in South Central, where “family violence is a big issue” and where the maternal grandmother is commonly the head of household, and often a resentful one. It is not unusual, said Banks, to learn that the grandmother had herself been a teen parent, that she had hoped to go back to school but is now expected to take care of a grandchild while the mother goes to school.
Sometimes, Davis said, “The grandmother is 30 years old. She’s asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ They’re angry. They still have needs but don’t know how to articulate them.”
In 1986, social stigma is not the problem. Indeed, Leibowitz noted, “Over 90% have made the decision they’re going to keep their babies.” Davis said that, although El Nido will be offering adoption instruction, this is not an acceptable solution to today’s teens. “If a girl says she wants to give up her baby,” Leibowitz said, “she’ll actually be stigmatized.”
Kelley Coleman is 18, the mother of a 1-year-old daughter, Kaleisha White, a senior at Washington High School and an El Nido client.
She has a good relationship with her baby’s father, a 26-year-old unemployed former security guard she calls Yogi, but she does not know if they have a future together. “He claims he wants to marry me,” she said, and she thinks she would--"if he had a good job and was into church. (She sings in the choir at Rock of Faith Baptist). Right now we’re just friends.”
She is also close to her mother, Juanita, a widow with whom she and Kaleisha live and who helps support them with her Social Security checks. Juanita Coleman takes care of the baby while Kelley is at school and at her after-school clerical job at Northrop. “It’s a joy,” she said, “and it’s tiresome. I’m not a baby myself. I’m 52. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing this, but I do.”
From the start, she said, she knew it would work out. Juanita Coleman recalled when she first suspected that her daughter was pregnant--they were on a vacation in Hawaii. “I used to go out on the terrace and have little talks with the Lord,” seeking the courage she says she found.
Through a friend Kelley learned about El Nido and started attending weekly sessions at her high school. She recalled, “When I had things I might be too embarrassed to tell my mother, I’d share with the girls and get their support.” They talked about parenting skills, transition to parenthood, conflict resolution, goal setting, role clarification and career planning. While she was out of school, an El Nido representative brought her homework assignments to her and delivered the completed work to school. (She made two A’s.)
Kelley stayed in school until two weeks before her baby was born and, three weeks later, returned to classes. Hers was an easy pregnancy and Kaleisha is a plump, happy, healthy child. With her mother’s help, she has found it easier than she expected to cope with both school and a baby--"the hardest part is trying to do my homework and play with her at the same time"-- and she admits to being “kind of nervous” at the prospect of graduating in June and “getting out and struggling.”
She plans to go to technical school and learn electronics. “Whatever I am,” she said, “I want my baby to be better. I want her to grow up with a mother-father image in mind (the baby’s father visits frequently and Kaleisha calls him “Daddy”). I want her to be smart. I want her to be successful.”
Although she is only 18, Kelley’s life now centers on her baby. She dates now and then but, she said, “Now that I have a baby I’m more selective about who I’m with. I don’t want to be with somebody who can’t motivate me.”
True, she said, “My friends don’t call me like they used to. I guess it’s because they know I want to bring my baby with me. I feel kind of left out, sure.” But, she said, “I don’t think I’m missing anything. I love Kaleisha. I can’t remember what I did without her.”
The people who work at El Nido think of Candy Rivera, 17, and her boyfriend, Jorge Lopez, 17, and 6-month-old Jorge Jr. as another of their success stories.
Rivera, who will graduate in June from Albert Einstein High School, a continuation school, is surprisingly mature and composed for her age. When told that, she laughed and said, “Having a baby, you go from 17 to 35--just like that.”
Candy and Jorge, who has just completed continuation school and is currently a full-time baby-sitter for his infant son, have lived together, with his mother, in a North Hollywood apartment, since January of 1985, four months after they met at Cecelia’s, an ice cream parlor in North Hollywood.
Soon Candy became pregnant. She remembers the day Jorge took her to a clinic for a pregnancy test: “I came out and said, ‘Yep, seven weeks,’ and he hugged me.” Her mother’s reaction was somewhat different--"She didn’t talk to me for nine months.”
“We wanted to have a baby,” Jorge said. “To settle us down,” she added. “We were going wild, no purpose in our lives, just ditching school . . . “
Candy smiled and said, “You could probably describe him as a hoodlum. I calmed him down.”
Jorge acknowledged minor scrapes with the law, an incident on a bus when “I picked a fight. I hit a kid who was making fun of a mentally retarded kid. He pressed charges and I got put on probation for a year.”
He has his high school diploma, and he has hopes of joining the Marines. But for the time being he is doing odd jobs.
At first, Candy said, “I had a lot of people pushing me to get an abortion. They’re always pushing you about children having children. That’s a phrase I don’t like so much.”
She intended to have the baby, and she intended to get an education. “I’m proud of finishing high school,” she said, mentioning that before her only one of the four children in her family had.
She talked with happy anticipation about her graduation ceremony. “The baby will be there,” she said, “and my Mom’s going. She’s going to buy me my class ring.” Then she looked at Jorge, smiled, and said, “You can continue in school (after you have a baby). You just need the right man to do it.”
They don’t feel deprived, or tied down. “I’ve had all my fun,” Candy said. “Maybe we’re getting more out of life,” said Jorge. “We’d probably just be spending more time on the street.” Right, said Candy, “and probably have gone to drugs or something.”
Jorge has his sights set on the Marines because “I want to see if I can do something hard instead of taking the easy way.”
But before he leaves, they said, they hope to marry, perhaps on Candy’s birthday, June 12. She looks forward to being a full-time mother.
They have a five-year dream, which includes a house and another child. Candy has seen what she doesn’t want: “I know this one girl, she started having babies when she was only 14. She’s 17 now and she’s on her third kid.”
They seem determined to make it. Said Candy, “We want to show our families that we didn’t get into something we couldn’t handle.”