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New strategies needed to fight teen pregnancy

April 18, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

When a community is faced with a crisis, local officials usually have two choices - craft a solution from scratch, or look at how other communities have handled the issue and try to borrow those ideas.

Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel says that when it comes to dealing with teen pregnancy, local officials should take a hard look at what they're doing in Talbot County, Md.

Since 1997, Christoffel said, Talbot County has cut its teen-pregnancy rate by 43 percent. During the same time period, Washington County's birth rate for mothers ages 15 to 19 grew to the fourth-highest in the state, topping both state and national averages.

To find out what they're doing right in Talbot County, I spoke to a group of officials there who work with various programs that deal with different aspects of the problem.

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Gloria Dill, the deputy health officer for operations, said that Talbot County has made progress with an approach that involved the entire community.

"It's a multifaceted approach that evolved over 10 or more years," Dill said.

One important part has been the school-based health centers that began in 1993 when the first one was set up at Easton High School, according to Judy Strong, the county's Community Health Nurse Supervisor for School Health.

In 1995, Strong said, a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation enabled the school system to continue the high school center, while adding others at Easton's elementary and middle schools, Strong said.

At those centers, a nurse practicioner was available to diagnose and treat students, as well as to give them information on reproductive health options, Strong said.

There was opposition, Strong and Dill said, but it was overcome to a large extent by the formation of a committee of community leaders, including members of the clergy, who took the position that students needed more information on ways to prevent pregnancy.

The school system approved the change, they said, with one reservation. Centers can provide information, but no contraceptive devices are given out in the schools. However, nurse practicioners do physical exams and can prescribe birth-control devices.

For those who prefer that their children not get birth-control information, there is a grant-funded, abstinence-only program and a local chapter of Character Counts! that emphasizes self-respect and other positive attitudes.

There is also a group called Talbot Mentors, Lowry said, which functions like Big Brothers-Big Sisters, in that the program works with high-risk children who need more support than they're getting at home.

For those who have already gotten pregnant, Talbot County has Family Support Centers, which Kat Stork, a representative of that program, said provide everything from prenatal care and help with parenting of children up to age 4.

One of the centers' objectives is to do whatever is needed to keep teen parents from getting pregnant again for at least two years after the first child is born, Stork said.

The centers also send teen parents into the schools to tell other teens how difficult it is to be a parent, she said.

Dill said the Family Support Centers also stress parental responsibility. Young parents can get help through home visits by professionals who work with them on child care and encourage them to improve themselves by getting their GEDs.

Parents get help, too, Lowry said, through a program called Guiding Good Choices, offered to mothers and fathers of fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

"It's to help parents learn how to help their children make good choices," Lowry said.

Parents have a key role to play in all of this, Dill said, because the values they have are likely to be the ones their children will adopt.

"In this community, there's a sense of the value of a high school education and of the value of moving onto a career track," Dill said.

Asked if that were part of the social culture in Talbot County, Dill said that was hard to express.

"A lot of the focus is on what Paula (Lowry) talked about - reinforcing social behaviors," she said.

For some Washington County officials, a discussion about teen pregnancy is about as welcome as a chat about gay rights. Both involve social behaviors that many would rather pretend don't take place and both evoke strong responses based on religious beliefs.

But not talking about the problem of teen pregnancy and failing to address it with a community wide effort is wrong, for several reasons.

Avoiding this discussion ensures that more tax dollars will be spent on services for young mothers, and that their children will likely remain in poverty for most of their lives.

Worst of all is the fact that research shows that teen mothers' children, through no fault of their own, are more likely to be abused and neglected.

Washington County's Health Officer has ruffled some feathers with the way he's pushed for action on this problem. Some may quarrel with his approach, but no one can say he's wrong.

What Washington County is doing - or not doing - isn't working. For the children's sake, it's time to try something else.

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