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Teen pregnancy

March 25, 2002|BY KEVIN CLAPP

On Aug. 27, 2000, The Herald-Mail introduced readers to Jessica Insley, a teen mother who conceived a future that hasn't developed as planned. Her story is a way of talking about the complicated issues of teenage pregnancy.

Jessica Insley was going to get married, you know. A white picket fence version of perfect bliss, maybe. Or maybe not. But a family just the same, with daughter Jadelynn Shriner and the one-year-old's father.

Instead, the 17-year-old was up before the sun, nursing a toddler before struggling through a long day in the classroom. Twice a week, class was followed by three hours of night school to make up for time lost the previous school year.

Three days a week, plus weekends, Jessica worked at County Market as a cashier. The paycheck paid rent, bills and childcare. Jadelynn's father - at one point, Jessica's love for him was absolute - had been gone since early in the third trimester.

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Happily ever after had been kicked, crushed and cubed by the raw burn of reality. And this was just the beginning.

Prevention remains an issue

Jessica became one of 80 girls under 18 in Washington County to give birth in 1999. Decreasing to 62 youths in 2000, teen pregnancy is on the decline, but the questions of education and prevention remain.

Until a week ago, Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel focused on 18 and under births, particularly the 26 in 2000 that represented pregnancy number two, three or four, as his greatest concern.

Preventing multiple pregnancies by youngsters is still key, but then he saw a chart comparing the number of live births per 1,000 people in three age groups: 14 to 17, 18 to 19 and 20 to 44.

Teens 18 and 19 last year gave birth roughly 30 more times per 1,000 than women ages 20 to 44. The statistics tell him more educating must be done to reach these girls who, if they are giving birth at 18, are likely getting pregnant while still in school.

"People are afraid the earlier you educate, that's promoting sex, which isn't the case. The more you educate the children, it will empower them to make positive decisions," says Girls Incorporated of Washington County executive director Maureen Grove. "The sooner you start talking to your children the better, and parents should be their child's first educator."

It takes a community

Parental involvement is just the first salvo in a conflict Grove and Christoffel call a community effort.

Girls Inc. and the Parent-Child Center offer educational programs in and out of school, including anonymous options that allow teens to voice questions about sex and pregnancy. The Health Department is where Jessica was told she was pregnant, and Christoffel says confidential counseling is available.

But even education is not foolproof. Jessica took a Girls Inc. pregnancy prevention class - three times. She was taking birth control pills. She and her partner did not use condoms, a practice she will not soon repeat.

"Unfortunately, the 'saying no' message isn't enough anymore," Grove says. "We want to encourage abstinence, but reality is showing us a lot of these youths are not staying abstinent, so the ones we're losing to that, we have to give other options."

Pregnant at 15, Jessica completed her sophomore year at South Hagerstown High School with little difficulty other than not being able to take gym.

Her friends, meanwhile, were ecstatic at Jessica's impending motherhood, rubbing her growing stomach and promising to watch the child if necessary.

First her boyfriend left her. Her friends were next to disappear, though some, with children of their own, have returned. One friend's pregnancy in particular caught her attention.

"I was very surprised when she got pregnant because she watched me, she knew how difficult it was for me," Jessica says. "They don't listen. Girls don't listen. If I had listened to my mother and Miss Maureen, I probably wouldn't have had this problem."

Don't get her wrong. She loves her daughter and would not give her up for anything. Still, she knows her life would have unfolded along a different path had she not become pregnant.

The Interagency Committee on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention and Parenting (ICAPPP) conducts a survey of girls who give birth at Washington County Hospital. In 2001, 108 girls ages 15 to 19 took part in the survey, answering questions ranging from birth control to sexual activity.

One question asked what parents, schools and friends could have done to prevent the pregnancy. Eighty-five said nothing would have prevented it.

The response caught Claudia Martin, director of the Parent-Child Center Right from the Start Program, off guard. The program assists expectant teen mothers through the first year to 18 months of their child's life.

"We're asking kids, 'Tell us what we can do to help you change your mind,'" Martin says. "A lot of them are saying just come out and tell us what happens."

Dealing with reality

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