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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nowadays, the difference in their ages is barely even noticed. Robin Abramo, 29, and Chad Abramo, 35, are like many happily married couples--in love, financially stable, and providing a safe and comfortable home for three young sons.

But if some government officials had their way, and they include Gov. Pete Wilson and the director of the state’s Department of Social Services, the Abramos say they would never have had a chance to become a family. Robin became a mother at age 16 and Chad was a father at 21.

Relationships such as the Abramos’ are at the core of a continuing debate among officials across California over teenage pregnancies.

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The controversy was sparked by recent disclosures that Orange County social workers had helped some pregnant teenagers in protective custody marry the adult men who impregnated them, instead of treating the girls as victims of child abuse or statutory rape.

A flurry of questions has arisen in the wake of the revelations, but few answers have emerged.

How young is too young? What should be done with men who break the law by having sex with underage girls? Should the couples be allowed to marry, or be kept apart?

The Abramos are clear on where they stand.

“The lifelong and personal choices my husband and I made should not have been left up to intolerant government officials and outspoken department heads,” Robin Abramo said in her tony, two-story Mission Viejo home. “Sex, marriage and the bearing of children are not black and white issues. Attention must be paid to the individuals involved.”

State officials say otherwise, arguing that tremendous societal and financial costs are associated with teenage pregnancies. They estimate that California spends between $5 billion and $7 billion annually on Medi-Cal, welfare and food stamps for unwed teenage mothers and their children.

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A 1995 study by professors from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago on teenage pregnancies, however, challenges the assumptions of state officials. It argues that teenagers who get pregnant are no more likely to be financial burdens on government than other teenagers in the same socioeconomic group.

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“How much would we save if these teenagers had children later in life? The answer is zero,” said V. Joseph Hotz, one of three professors who conducted the study of nearly 5,000 women who had been interviewed each year since 1979.

Their study found that teenage mothers are just as likely to obtain a high school diploma and to have the same earnings potential as other teenage girls. Nor are they more likely to participate in government-sponsored welfare programs.

State officials nonetheless are determined to reduce teenage pregnancies, both through a public education program and by cracking down on men who have unlawful sex with minors.

The governor has pledged $8 million statewide this year to criminally prosecute statutory rape cases, which occurs when an adult has sex with a minor. A law that Wilson signed last week allows for civil fines up to $25,000 against adults who have sex with underage partners.

Eloise Anderson, director of the state’s social services department, has waded into the debate. She advocates sentencing the men to jail, placing the girls in foster care and putting their babies up for adoption.

“I’d like Eloise Anderson to step in my door and have dinner with my family, and say what we have is wrong and what we have should never have happened, and she knows better than we did,” Robin Abramo said. “I think it’s pretty irresponsible for her to be in the position she’s in and making statements like that.”

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“It’s just wrong,” said Chad Abramo, as he sat beside his wife in their spacious living room. “Under [Anderson’s] scenario, our family would have never happened. Robin would have been taken away from her family, [our son] Justin would have been put up for adoption, our two younger sons never would have been born, and I would have been put in jail. I think that would have been a tragedy. People should not draw a hard line in these cases.”

Orange County social workers have come under fire for not having a set policy on such relationships.

Because they have not drawn a “hard line” in such cases, at least 15 pregnant adolescents under county protection were allowed to marry or resume living with the adult men who made them pregnant. In one case, a pregnant 13-year-old girl was given court approval to marry her 20-year-old boyfriend.

Social workers have justified the marriage arrangements as a better alternative than putting the girls in foster care and prosecuting the men on sex crime charges. Furthermore, they say they have only accommodated the marriages when the girl, her parents, her court-appointed attorney and the adult male are happy with the arrangement.

Since the uproar over the practice, however, officials from the Social Services Agency are reviewing their procedures and have tentatively decided to stop recommending marriages in such cases, leaving the decisions to the Juvenile Court judges who handle dependency cases.

Robin and Chad Abramo now worry that a more law-and-order approach to these situations is going to prevent families like theirs from ever getting a chance to succeed.

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“People need to see there is another side to the story,” Robin Abramo said. “These type of marriages can work out. We don’t all end up on welfare.”

Indeed, Abramo is hardly the image of the welfare mother so often described by the governor and others when they talk about cracking down on teenage pregnancies. She has never been on welfare, does not live in poverty, and her children are not likely to need public assistance.

Unlike the girls who came under the protection of county social workers, Abramo never found herself under the jurisdiction of child protection professionals. Although her doctors and teachers were aware that she was pregnant, they never contacted social workers--as they are supposed to do--to inform authorities that the then-16-year-old was a victim of statutory rape.

In other ways, however, she was the typical teenage mother. Like nearly 66% of California’s teenage mothers, Robin was impregnated by an adult man. She dropped out of high school. And she thought she was mature enough to make lifetime choices.

“We both knew this was taboo, but it just happened,” Robin Abramo said. “It’s not like girls are looking for this to happen.”

In Robin’s case, it began when she was 13 and Chad was 18.

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They grew up next door to each other in a middle-class neighborhood in Fullerton. Chad and Robin’s brother were best friends for years before Chad discovered that he had feelings for Robin.

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When Robin and Chad’s parents found out they were dating, “they were concerned,” Robin Abramo said.

Despite the disapproval, the pair continued to see each other for another three years. Although they had talked about getting married at some point, they had to rush their plans when Robin became pregnant at 16.

“I was pretty nervous about it,” Chad said of getting married. “But I felt right about it. I just felt that Robin was the person I was supposed to marry. So it was just hurrying up the timetable.”

At the beginning, it was a struggle. They moved into a small apartment in Fullerton. Robin dropped out of school to care for Justin, and Chad continued working as a salesman, earning $1,400 a month.

“Her friends were going to proms and graduation parties, and we’re both learning how to be parents,” said Chad Abramo, who is now a successful business consultant. “The first three years were the toughest.”

But the couple said their love never wavered.

Today, they have two more sons, Robert, 6, and Mitchell, 23 months, and seem to enjoy their suburban lifestyle.

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“This is not to condone our situation as appropriate for everyone else,” Robin Abramo said. “Would I want that for my children? Not necessarily. But people have to be allowed to make their own choices.”

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