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Teen pregnancy: Is there a solution that will cut county's high birth rate?

March 28, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

By now you've probably heard or read about Washington County Health Officer Williams Christoffel's attempts to deal with an unacceptably high teen pregnancy rate in Washington County.

He has a great Power Point presentation with charts that show that in 2003, the county had the fourth-highest birth rate in the state for mothers ages 15 to 19, higher than the Maryland or U.S. averages.

But charts only tell you so much. Sometimes looking at one person's story can bring an issue into clearer focus. Christoffel told me this one about a girl we'll call Sally, though it's not her real name.

Sally became pregnant at age 15, dropped out of school and became what's called an "emancipated minor" after her parents kicked her out of the house.

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"Then she started living by her wits," Christoffel said.

She began crashing at different friends' apartments, then took up with a series of older men.

Subsequently, she had two more children by two different fathers and there was evidence that she neglected them.

She became addicted to cocaine and had a problem with alcohol, Christoffel said, adding that at age 26, she finally began rehabilitation.

"She ended up in Cameo House, a local residential treatment program for women with young children," he said.

"The cost to the taxpayers for this young lady was in excess of $140,000 - for welfare, food stamps, rent support and medical care," he said.

"It's all paid for through the state and 50 percent of that is paid for by local residents," he said.

In 2003, there were 185 children born to local women ages 15 to 19, he said. Not all of those are welfare cases, but the cost per year for their care is nearly $400,000.

Asked about proposed solutions, Christoffel said that there's a long- term solution and a short-term one.

Christoffel said the long-term solution is the one promoted by Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan, who is telling students that they can achieve greater things.

In the long run, even lower-achieving students will begin to absorb that message, he said.

"The immediate approach would be to update the Family Life curriculum, so kids aren't falling asleep in that class," he said.

"Abstinence must continue to be a part of sex-education classes, but if they're sexually active, we need to give them information about contraception to protect them from pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases," he said.

Teens need contraceptive information, Christoffel said, because in 2004, 187 teen mothers who gave birth at Washington County Hospital were surveyed. Of those, 112 responded and 88 percent said the pregnancy wasn't planned.

Asked if giving students information on contraception is interpreted by students as permission to have sex, Christoffel said the research says that's not the case.

Another part of the solution is for adults to take more responsibility for their own behavior, so that their bad example doesn't send teens down the wrong path, he said.

In Talbot County, pregnancy-prevention programs have reduced the rate by 43 percent since 1997, he said.

The person in charge of Family Life in Washington County is Edward Masood, supervisor for arts, health, physical education and athletics.

Masood, in that post since July 2003, took issue with Christoffel's statement that the Family Life curriculum hasn't been revised in 30 years.

"The materials have been renewed and updated since I have been here," said.

"The program is abstinence-based, but not abstinence-only," he said.

Students get information on various methods of birth control, he said, and there's even a video on birth control entitled "Hope is not a method" that is shown in 10th grade.

I asked Masood why, if students are getting birth-control information, the pregnancy rate is still so high here.

"When you have a 30-year-old grandmother and a 15-year-old child with a 2-year-old baby, that's not good. It's a cultural issue of what's acceptable," he said.

Despite being irritated with Christoffel for what Masood said was the spread of misinformation, Masood said he wants to work with the health department on this issue. More needs to be done, he agreed.

The problem all agencies now face, Masood said, is a directive coming from the federal government mandating that all sex-education programs be abstinence-only, or schools may lose federal funds.

If that directive sticks, local agencies will have to tackle this problem in other ways. As soon as possible, I plan to write about what officials in Talbot County are doing.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion editor of The Herald-Mail.

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