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More Girls Pregnant at Younger Age, Survey Finds

Times Staff Writer

While teen births have declined slightly overall, more pregnancies are occurring at earlier ages, according to a first-of-its-kind report on adolescent pregnancy in Orange County.

And services to combat the continuing problem of teen-age pregnancy and parenthood, including sex education, are too few and too hard to find, say social service providers interviewed for Adolescent Pregnancy ChildWatchq, a volunteer survey of 199 local health and community groups, churches, schools and government agencies.

In 1986, one in 27 girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth, slightly fewer than in recent years. But in the same year, 40 children were born to mothers ages 10 through 14, up from 24 in 1970, according to the report, which was compiled over the past 18 months. The disturbing statistics mirror nationwide trends, said Cal State Fullerton researcher Richard T. Serpe, who supervised the survey and final report.

Call for Action

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“Agencies don’t know what to do. If they knew, they’d be doing it,” Serpe said. “They’re doing as good a job as they can, but there needs to be a focus.

“This report is essentially a call for action.”

Specific recommendations to solve the problems will be addressed next spring, researchers said.

The report, sponsored by the Junior League and a coalition of volunteers from multi-ethnic organizations as part of the national ChildWatch project created by the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., will be presented to the community at 2 p.m. Thursday at a forum in Costa Mesa.

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The report provides “the clearest picture we’ve ever had about what is happening in Orange County related to teen-age pregnancy,” said Cindy Scheinberg, executive director of the Coalition Concerned with Adolescent Pregnancy, one of the survey’s sponsors. “What will be most important with this report is what we do with it.”

The report shows that “Orange County does have a problem with adolescent pregnancy. We’re not immune to that,” said Ann Dean, chair of the ChildWatch project and a member of the Junior League. “And the vast majority of people we interviewed, 87.9% of those who work with adolescents and understand the problem, believe Orange County is not addressing the issue successfully. That’s compelling.”

Comprehensive Health Care

Respondents agreed “strongly” that comprehensive health care should be available on high school campuses, although they were not asked whether that health care should include contraceptives. They also agreed that contraceptive counseling and services for teen-agers should be part of a comprehensive health service plan, but not necessarily on campus. They further agreed that sex education encourages responsible behavior with respect to sexual activity among adolescents.

Dean called the report a grass-roots effort aimed at preventing first pregnancies. ChildWatch is intended to “give adolescents both the ability and a reason to avoid pregnancy. Our idea of prevention includes greater perceived life options as well as education,” Dean said.

In an effort to obtain data to mobilize the community to seek solutions, respondents were asked 12 questions about their attitudes on prevention of adolescent pregnancy, as well as the availability of services and barriers teen-agers face in obtaining them.

Most disagreed that teen-agers should be taught that abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy. They also disagreed that parental consent should be required at health services centers for teen-agers.

However, 55% said that family life education should be taught in the home and not in the schools.

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Abortion Issue Avoided

Dean said the project avoided the controversial issue of abortion, saying it is “divisive.” But she said service providers agreed in calling for general, long-range solutions, such as more teaching of self-sufficiency, independent living, financial planning, job training, parenting and child-rearing, as well as programs to enhance self-esteem.

It is not difficult for teen-agers to find easy access to information on career planning, personal counseling, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and drug and alcohol abuse, respondents said. The most difficult information to find is on independent living, they said. Other services, such as child care, financial counseling and baby clinics, are difficult for teen-age mothers to obtain, they said.

Most saw language and cultural customs, money, transportation and knowledge of options as barriers to teen-agers’ ability to find health, planning, personal development and child-care services.

Those interviewed believe that some of the greatest barriers that adolescents face are “societal conditions.” More than 75% believe that a lack of community awareness, political, emotional and moral sensitivity of these issues “is a major or serious barrier.”

School Sex Education

Researchers were unable to determine the nature and extent of sex education taught in the schools, due to conflicting answers from school principals, teachers and administrators, Scheinberg said.

They also were unable to determine the percentage of teen-age mothers who keep their babies, the marital status of local teen-age mothers and the rate at which they drop out of school. (In California, 59% of teen births are to unmarried girls, and the dropout rate is estimated at 80%; nationwide, 9 of 10 teen mothers keep their children.)

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According to the report, 3,049 of 81,083 Orange County girls from ages 15 to 19 gave birth in 1986. More teen mothers are having second, third and fourth babies, the report said, which accounted for 18.4% of the 1986 teen births, a slight increase from previous years. Most of the additional teen births were to Latinas.

The rise in births among 10- to 14-year-olds is particularly alarming, considering that the age group is declining as a percentage of the female population in Orange County, researchers said. Usually, child-bearing age is considered to be from 15 to 45.

Factors contributing to the young births may include the earlier onset of puberty (now between 10 and 11 for girls, as compared with age 17 two centuries ago) and the earlier start of sexual activity. They also may be the result of abuse or molestation.

The survey reported that in 1986, 24% of fathers of babies born to teen-age mothers in Orange County were teen-agers themselves, 49% were between 20 and 24 and 17% were over 25. In 10% of cases, fathers’ ages were not stated.

Number of Abortions

The report did not address the number of abortions obtained by Orange County adolescents. But researchers indicated they probably outnumber births, as a 1985 statewide study indicated.

Experts believe that teen-agers become pregnant in affluent and poor communities at equal rates but that more teen-agers obtain abortions in affluent areas.

Ethnically, 56% of the teen-agers in Orange County who gave birth in 1986 were Latina; Anglos accounted for 35.6%. Twenty-two of the 40 girls under 15 who gave birth in 1986 were Latinas.

As a percentage within ethnic groups, 13.5% of all Latinas who gave birth were adolescents, down from 17.8% in 1980. Teen-agers accounted for 10% of the black females who gave birth, down from 19.1% in 1980. Teen-agers accounted for 5.5% of the white females who gave birth in 1986, down from 9.1% in 1980. The dip in the birth rate seems heartening but is statistically insignificant, according to Cal State researcher Serpe. The figures fluctuate within a consistent range, he said.

Sponsors were led by the Junior League and included the California Alliance Concerned with School Age Parents, the Coalition Concerned with Adolescent Pregnancy, the Links Inc., March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation and Mexican American Women’s National Assn.

The report, titled “Our Future at Risk: A Call for Action,” ends the first phase of the project. Specific suggestions arising from the Thursday forum will be incorporated into an “action agenda” in February, Dean said.

“We have a lot of work to do.”


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