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Teen birth rates up, despite state trends

July 12, 1998|By SHEILA HOTCHKIN

They met soon after entering high school. He was a football player and she was an avid fan who took a job as a team manager.

They started dating, and the relationship progressed. She began taking birth control pills. They failed.

A few hours before Father's Day 1997, then-16-year-old Amber Neil told her boyfriend she had taken three home pregnancy tests - and all had come out positive.

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"I was like, 'So ... Happy Father's Day,'" recalled the Shippensburg, Pa., resident, who now raises her 5-month-old daughter with her boyfriend's help.

Despite strides made by the states, Neil's story is repeated throughout the area in a problem that statistics show is not disappearing.

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Four of the Tri-State area's seven counties reported increases in teen pregnancy in 1996, even as all three states registered five-year declines.

Maryland has shown a slow but steady decrease in the birth rates per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19, a number that has dropped from 50.7 in 1992 to 46.0 in 1996.

Erlene Wilson from the Governor's Office for Children, Youth and Families, said Maryland has been combating teen pregnancy for nearly a decade, using everything from local councils to community incentive grants to advertising campaigns.

"You can't get these results unless you go long-term," she said. "You've got to commit long-term."

Frederick County, Md., while putting up significantly lower rates than the state, has never established a consistent pattern of decline.

Neither has Washington County, which has not dropped below state teen birth rate levels since 1990.

Dr. Robert Parker, health officer at the Washington County Health Department, conjectured that economic situations and cultural differences could account for differences in teen birth rates from one county to the next.

Ann Spottswood, education coordinator at Family Health Services of Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania, is well aware of the effect those cultural conditions can have.

Franklin County's teen pregnancy rate has generally decreased and is consistently lower than the state average. But Fulton County's often jumps well beyond that average, and has climbed as high as 70 for every 1,000 girls between 15 and 19.

"In a community such as Fulton County, it's still not unusual for young ladies to start families right out of high school," she said.

But she is pleased with the general decline in Franklin County, although she cannot attribute it to anything specific.

"I don't want to sound like we're taking credit for it," she said. "We just don't know."

Spottswood mentioned Depo Provera injections, a relatively new, highly effective form of birth control that only needs to be administered every three months. She also said education programs might have had an effect.

But Verna Raynor, a midwife with Antietam Health Services in Hagerstown, still frequently sees teens who became pregnant after disregarding the risks associated with sex.

"I think a lot of teenagers get pregnant because they're bored and they want a boyfriend and they don't know how to say no," she said.

Another trend that disturbs Raynor is the number of teens she sees who deliberately become pregnant. She said many of these girls do not do well in school and who are not pursuing any specific dream.

"So they make a baby and that gives them something to feel good about," she said.

Raynor said risk signs can include a history of abuse, those who date people much older than themselves, those who use drugs or alcohol "and just young girls out there with too much freedom."

Parker warned that statistically, babies of teen mothers are at higher risk for low birth weight, intrauterine death or infant death.

"The important thing is to get (the mothers) into care early and to get them followed carefully throughout pregnancy," he said.

But many teens delay prenatal care because they either do not know they are pregnant or are embarrassed to admit it, Parker said.

Meanwhile, Neil spends each day learning to be a mother. She joined Crossings, a local government-run program that offers social events and parenting classes for teen mothers.

After her daughter's birth, she finished her junior year in high school with a B average and will return in the fall for her final year. This summer, she has two part-time jobs.

Her friends took the news in stride, but the difference in lifestyles and Neil's lack of time has put some distance between them. "As of now, I don't really see too many people," she said.

But she knows she is lucky to have the support of her boyfriend and parents.

Said Neil: "I really don't have it too hard, compared to a lot of girls who don't have anybody."

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