The Youngest Moms : Teen Pregnancy Rate Keeps Rising--and Changing Lives

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was just a little girl.

Sure, she could talk as tough as any teen-ager on the block. She could hang with the older guys, smoking dope and drinking booze. She could come home from school to an empty apartment, scrounge together some form of dinner, stay up late killing time with whatever hodgepodge of pals wandered by.

But she was only 11--an age at which most girls are considered too young to baby-sit the kids next-door.

And she was pregnant.

For months, she ignored the missed periods; her experience with menstruation had been brief, after all. She ignored the nausea and swollen stomach.

"It was, like, real denial until I actually felt something moving inside of me," says Linda Pollard, now a senior at El Modena High School and the mother of a 5-year-old daughter. "I have a big mouth--I like to tell people things. But this was something I couldn't tell anyone, I was so scared."

The statistics are frustrating and frightening. In the past decade, births among young girls have climbed both nationally and locally--although the population of 10- to 14-year-olds, caught in between baby booms, has declined.

Recently released figures show that in 1989 at least 61 girls under age 15 had babies in Orange County--up from 49 girls the previous year and 22 girls in 1979. The increase mirrors the national trend, in which, in 1989, 10,588 girls ages 10 to 14 gave birth.

An estimated four out of 10 American females become pregnant before they reach their 20th birthday. Half of teen pregnancies end in abortion. About one-third of all abortions in California are performed on teen-agers.

Experts believe that many factors contribute to the stubborn rise in teen pregnancies: the media's glamorization of sex, inadequate education about the consequences of unprotected intercourse, and the breakdown of the nuclear family.

"On television, everyone talks about the fun of sex, but nobody talks about the responsibility," says Victoria I. Paterno, department chairman of Pediatrics at St. John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica and a professor at UCLA School of Medicine. "It gives teens an incomplete picture of sexuality."

That picture, she adds, is not tempered by enough sex education either in the home or in schools: "Prevention is the key. We, as a society, have not done our job in addressing the tragedy of children having children."

Linda makes a lasting impression from the moment she bursts into view.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she said. "I was thinking, like, is the interview today or tomorrow and--ouch! I just sat on--what do you call this thing?--a staple. Anyway, I couldn't remember if the interview was . . . ."

Clearly relishing center stage, Linda laughs a lot, states her opinion unabashedly and intercepts the limelight from her mother with a periodic, "May I finish what I was saying, puh-leeze?"

She wears an infectious smile, haphazardly styled hair and glasses that she vainly snaps from her face for photographs. She dresses in familiar teen-age fashion--that tricky balance of chic and sloppy.

In the context of its animated telling, her story sounds surreal and distant. Yet for a 17-year-old, childhood is a recent event.

Her now-deceased father was an American, her mother is Laotian. They met in Thailand, where Arthur Pollard worked on a U.S. military ship. After Linda's birth, they moved to the States and lived with relatives on the East Coast.

Soon thereafter, her father landed in prison. "It's kind of dumb what he did. He robbed a bank, OK?" Linda says, embarrassed. "Dumb da-dee dumb. How did he think he could get away with this?"

When Linda was 8, her father got off on parole and "bribed" her away from his estranged wife. "My mom had a lot of rules I had to live by. My dad said no more spankings, no more rules. He painted a wonderful picture of how great life was going to be with him."

The final lure: "He got me a dog, so I chose to live with my dad. Me, my dog and my dad all got in a station wagon with a U-Haul on the back and drove to California."

They ended up in "a little slummy-type area of Santa Ana," Linda recalls. "It was really crowded, and kids just ran around and did whatever. I guess you could say I was a street kid."

Her father worked the graveyard shift on an assembly line, leaving Linda to her own devices. Neighborhood pals--teen-agers five or six years her senior--often stayed over at her apartment, where they smoked marijuana and drank her father's alcohol.

She didn't look 9. "People sometimes mistook me for 16," Linda says.

Nor did she act 9.

"That's when I first had sex. The boy was 11. It was a truth-or-dare type of thing: 'I bet you can't do this.' 'I bet I can.' I had girlfriends 13 and 14 already having sex, so it didn't seem like a big deal.

"Friends who have never experienced what I've been through--and I've been through a lot--say, 'Oh, my God, these little babes messing around.' But I didn't even think about my age. I got an early start on everything."

She estimates that by the time she became pregnant, she had been with two dozen boys and men--including a 27-year-old. "Numbers multiplied by numbers," Linda says, neither boastfully nor ashamedly. "You would not believe."

She claims that she enjoyed the sexual encounters. "Yeah, it was fun. I just like boys--what can I say?"

But, says Paterno, the pediatrician, "the body is not made to have intercourse at 9 years old.

"When she says she 'enjoyed it,' that could mean a number of things. There is the idea of giving someone pleasure; there is the idea of being loved, comforted, needed. Maybe (sex) was her only way of feeling loved."

Legally, intercourse with a female minor, even if she consents, is statutory rape, but seldom are charges filed.

"A lot of times, the girls won't testify or reveal the identity of their boyfriends, making it impossible for the district attorney to pursue the case," says Pam Lind, child-care supervisor at Orangewood Children's Home, which last year housed five pregnant girls under the age of 15.

Some of the younger pregnant girls at the Orange-based shelter for abused or abandoned children have been victims of incest.

"Those girls often are confused about their feelings toward their babies," Lind says. "They can be very nurturing one minute and very rejecting the next."

Linda began having periods at 10 but disregarded the link between menstruation and pregnancy. "I never used birth control," she says. "Even after I was pregnant, I thought, nah, that would never happen to me."

Meanwhile, Linda's mother had decided to regain custody of her. She arrived in California to find her daughter--just turned 12--visibly pregnant.

"There is no word to express how I felt," Onchanh Brumble says. "Shock is not enough."

"Despair?" offers her daughter, never short on words.

"The first thing my mom said was, 'You can't keep the baby--you're going to get an abortion,' " Linda remembers.

But they soon decided she was too far along for that option. Six months into her pregnancy, Linda finally visited an obstetrician.

In Orange County in 1988, only 37% of mothers-to-be 14 years and under received prenatal care during the first trimester, contrasted with 80% overall, according to Orange County Health Services. In Los Angeles County, the figures were 42%, contrasted with 72% overall.

Consequently, 14% of babies born to girls under the age of 15 have low birth weights (less than 5 1/2 pounds), which is twice the percentage of low-weight newborns overall, according to national health statistics.

"Pregnancy for these kids is not a real event until they start to blossom and look pregnant," says Lind of Orangewood. "They have no idea about prenatal care and good nutrition. If they were indulging in substance abuse before they became pregnant, they often continue to use drugs throughout their denial (stage)."

Linda admits that she smoked marijuana and drank alcohol during the early months of her pregnancy, but luckily, daughter Lisa arrived on her due date a healthy 6 pounds, 14 ounces.

She says did not immediately take to her baby. "They laid her on my stomach, and she was all slimy, and I said, 'Oooh, clean her up!' " Linda says with a laugh.

But later that day, when a nurse brought the newborn to her room to breast-feed, Linda fell in love.

"I didn't want them to take her back to the nursery," she says. She never considered adoption.

It was not until her baby's birth that Linda could pinpoint the father.

Says Linda, whose father was black, "I had it narrowed down to three guys." Two were black and one was Latino; Lisa's light skin indicated that "Tommy," the Latino, ranked the most likely candidate.

"He was an eighth-grader," Linda says. "He wasn't the best person to hang around with. He was affiliated with a gang and was into drugs."

Still, she somehow felt driven to tell Tommy about his daughter. "I went to his house," she says. "His family was in the process of moving, and he wasn't there. I left a photo of Lisa with his little brother.

"I figured he at least should know what his child looks like; I figured that would make him care--she's such an adorable little kid. But I never heard from him."

While pregnant, most teen mothers harbor "the fantasy that their boyfriends will marry them and they'll live happily ever after," says Marlene Angelos, director of Orange Unified Child Development Center, which provides parenting classes and day care to teen mothers.

"I've been in this program for 17 years, and in all that time I've known of maybe five boyfriends who have stayed with their girlfriends after the babies came--and that's a generous estimate."

Linda moved in with her mother, who had become a grandmother at age 32. Brumble remarried and had two more children--Travis, now 3, and Natalie, 2--meaning that Lisa is older than her aunt and uncle.

With the help of the child development center, Linda returned to school. For the last four years, she has dropped Lisa off at the center every school morning and has attended child-rearing and vocational classes there later in the day. "When I first got here, I was younger than the other girls and they treated me like a little sister," Linda says of the teen mothers at the center. "I was like, hey, come on! My kid's older than your kid!"

Only 20% of teen-age mothers in the United States complete high school--Linda will be one of them. And after she graduates this spring, she hopes to enroll at Orange Coast College. She has applied for financial aid and scholarships.

She complains that her grades could be better: "I have too many distractions."

The family's three-bedroom apartment in Orange is sparsely furnished but comfortable. Linda and Lisa sleep together on a mattress in their small room.

It is a midweek night, and the living room has erupted in childish revelry. Lisa playfully pounces on her mother, who lies on the floor. Travis and Natalie follow suit. Loud squeals and giggles explode from the pileup.

The grandmother/mother of the four noisemakers sits on a couch, apart from the action, watching with a placid smile. She seems like the amused matriarch--and Linda the rowdy big sis.

Brumble has divorced her second husband, and her family survives on government aid.

"I had to stop working for a while to take care of these children," she says.

"I hate to say that I'm a mother to Lisa, but I probably am," she adds. "Linda is more Lisa's playmate than her mother. She would go for three days without bathing Lisa if I didn't do it. She forgets to brush Lisa's hair before she takes her to school. She feeds her dinner when she should be putting her to bed."

Linda agrees. "I'm not very strict with her. My consistency isn't all that great."

An adept seamstress, Linda shows off the mother-daughter jumpsuits she recently stitched in her home economics class. A prom dress is her next project.

In many ways, Linda leads a teen-ager's life. She gabs on the phone too much, in her mother's opinion, and overextends herself with extracurricular activities. Her latest endeavor is a role in a school production of "Grease."

"She thinks about her daughter all the time, but she's always off doing other things," Brumble says, with a sigh.

At least, Brumble concedes, the child has inspired Linda to settle down: "She doesn't use drugs at all anymore."

Nor is she as promiscuous. "Lately, I've been trying to be kind of celibate," Linda says. "That's very hard for me, because I enjoy being sexually active, I'll tell ya."

Why, she is asked, does she find celibacy such a difficult objective.

She ponders the question. "I'm a hopeless romantic," she finally says. "So, yes, I'd love to be carried off and showered with love and affection. I love the idea of commitment, but I think it's scary, too. What if you don't have the exact same feelings for each other?"

Swerving along the center divider that separates childhood and adulthood, Linda can shift with ease from naive adolescent to wise young woman.

"I know one thing--I won't keep any secrets about sex from Lisa, because it doesn't work," she says. "If she doesn't learn about it from me, she'll learn about it from her friends. And she won't get good information--she'll just get wives' tales.

"Society keeps speeding up. Kids today are pushed to grow up so quickly, especially in California. The worst thing that parents can do is stick their heads in the sand. It's like, they don't want their kids to be taught sex education in school--but they aren't going to teach them at home, either."

And then, she suddenly veers back across: "I hope Lisa waits to have sex until she is at least 14."

Adolescent Births

Births by Orange County girls less than 15 years old

1979: 22 1980: 33 1981: 42 1982: 37 1983: 35 1984: 31 1985: 44 1986: 40 1987: 47 1988: 49 1989: 61 Source: Orange County Health Care Agency

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