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Teen Counselors Help Fight Sexual Myths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The calls to a local teen hot line would be almost funny, if they weren’t so pathetic.

Birth control pills will make you sterile. Only homosexuals can get AIDS. You can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex. And this from the sexually experienced kids.

How do they know? Because other kids told them so.

To help fight such myths and reduce teen-age pregnancies, the state has turned to an unlikely weapon: other teens.

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A two-year-old North Hollywood program is one of only a handful statewide to use the teen-to-teen approach. If it succeeds, the state plans to encourage other family planning clinics to copy it, potentially reducing the millions of tax dollars that are spent annually in health and welfare benefits for teen-age mothers and their children.

Clad in gray lab coats and sneakers, the teens are based at Valley Community Clinic on Vineland Avenue, where they help girls and boys ages 12 to 19 through the often-daunting process of obtaining contraceptives and tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

Their other mission is to hang out with friends and informally impart accurate information when the subject of sex comes up, as it often does.

“I used to be embarrassed to talk about condoms, but now I’ll just grab a banana or cucumber and show my friends how to put one on right,” said teen counselor Claudia Gutierrez, 17. “They didn’t even know how to open a condom package right until I showed them” not to use their teeth to tear open the package, which could damage the contents.

Such matter-of-fact demonstrations--both in and out of the clinic--appear to be paying off. Halfway through the four-year pilot project, experts are giving it high marks for attracting adolescents. Teen-agers visited the clinic 930 times last year, more than twice as often as before the program began. None have become pregnant, clinic officials said.

Maybe it’s the MTV in the lobby, or the personal recommendations from peers that account for the program’s popularity. The clinic relies only on word-of-mouth, not advertising.

“They can talk to us, just like a friend,” said Rhonda Perez, 17, a teen counselor who became a teen-age mother about 18 months ago. “I tell them it’s hard to be a teen mom and they don’t have to be one if they don’t want to.”

California’s birth rate among teen-age mothers recently decreased slightly for the first time in nine years. But there were still about 71 births per 1,000 girls in 1992, the last year for which figures are available. Each birth can cost taxpayers $2,500 in medical costs and $3,100 a year in ongoing welfare benefits, according to the state office of family planning.

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The North Hollywood program is funded by a $100,000 annual grant from the state agency, which also spends $5 million a year on programs to encourage teen-age abstinence. The teen clinic is one of five projects aimed at comparing the effectiveness of the teen-to-teen approach with “teen-friendly” clinics, which are staffed by adults with special training.

The jury is still out on which works better, but a researcher hired to evaluate the programs said there is room for both approaches. The teen-to-teen approach may work best in areas such as the east San Fernando Valley because low-income teen-agers tend to rely more on their peers for information about sexual matters, said the researcher, Claire Brindis, director of the Center for Reproductive Health Policy Research at UC San Francisco.

Under state law, the clinic may provide free or low-cost pregnancy-related services to youngsters age 12 or older without obtaining permission from their parents.

That doesn’t sit well with some parents. One father, who found out last year that his daughter was getting contraceptives, stormed the clinic in a rage and had to be forcibly removed by eight police officers.

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“We thought he had a gun,” said Connie L. Kruzan, the teen clinic’s director.

Other than that, the program has been trouble-free. But, as any parent knows, managing anything involving teen-agers can be a challenge.

The biggest risk, Kruzan said, is that the teen counselors, most of whom attend nearby North Hollywood High School, will gossip about the secrets they’ve learned: the sexually transmitted diseases fellow students have contracted or their choice of sex partners.

Violating a client’s right to confidentiality is grounds for immediate dismissal, and none of the 16 teen-agers who have worked at the clinic has ever been caught breaking a confidence.

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The teen clinic is officially open on Monday evenings and Saturdays, but the hours are actually flexible because 40% of the clients routinely fail to show up for their appointments. On a recent rainy Saturday, only two out of more than 10 clients who scheduled visits had shown up by midafternoon. Pop singer Toni Braxton’s video “Breathe Again” on MTV went unheeded.

“If you had a choice between a pelvic exam and going to the mall, which would you do?” Kruzan asked rhetorically.

Bored by the low turnout, some of the four teen-age counselors--who earn $7 an hour--began calling clients and gently urged them to come in. “This is Barbara,” one teen counselor says, using a previously agreed upon pseudonym to identify herself to one girl’s mother. “Please leave a message that I called.”

Two clients finally show up, one to be retested for a sexually transmitted disease and the other to obtain contraceptives after the recent birth of her second child. The girls claim to know the proper use of a condom, but teen counselor Alyssa Grigoryan, 18, shows them anyway.

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“I’m going to get personal: Are you using birth control?” she asked the 18-year-old teen-age mother, there on her first visit. “Not using anything,” the mother said, an answer that the counselors say they are accustomed to hearing.

“They make me feel comfortable here,” the teen-age mom said after deciding to return for Norplant, a contraceptive that is implanted beneath the skin and releases synthetic hormones gradually to prevent pregnancies for up to five years. “I kind of wish I had known about this place before.”


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