Teen birth rate down, but officials continue work

April 24, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS
  • Ashley Johnson, 17, and her 7-month-old daughter, Kayla, spend time at the Family Center in Hagerstown.
By Kelly Hahn Johnson/Staff Photographer,

HAGERSTOWN -- No one would have pegged Ashley Johnson as a girl likely to end up pregnant at 16 -- least of all herself.

"I was one of those girls that had everyone thinking I wasn't doing anything," she said. "I was respectful to teachers. I was a good student. I love my parents."

What's more, she was informed about contraceptives and knew where she could get them.

Yet Ashley and her boyfriend decided to risk having unprotected sex and, in the fall of her junior year, the unthinkable happened.

"I still took the chance of thinking ... it won't happen, but it did," she said.

Her story is one all too common for teenagers in Washington County, where, in 2008, 46.9 out of every 1,000 girls in the 15-to-19 age group gave birth, according to statistics released recently by the Maryland Vital Statistics Administration.

That figure, known as the teen birth rate, is down almost 20 percent from 2007, when 58 out of every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 gave birth, state records show.


The drop shifted Washington County from the third highest teen birth rate among Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City in 2007 to the fifth highest in 2008.

While local teen pregnancy prevention officials were pleased to see the drop, they know their work is far from over.

"Until we have several years' worth of data, it's going to be hard to tell whether this is just sort of a little statistical bubble or not," said Shalom Black Lane, director of the Washington County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition.

Washington County's teen birth rate in 2008 remained higher than the state rate of 32.7 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. It also was higher than the national rate of 41.5 births per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. Both the state and national teen birth rates were on the decline in 2008, with the state rate dropping about 4 percent and the national rate dropping about 2 percent from 2007 levels.

Increased awareness

Lane said it was hard to tell what might have influenced Washington County's steeper drop from 2007 to 2008, but two likely factors are increased awareness about the issue and more access to family planning services.

The coalition partners with schools and other community groups to reach teenagers with a variety of approaches, including an assembly for ninth-graders about contraception, faith-based programs through churches, and an annual Teen IDEA Challenge event at which teens are outfitted with a pregnancy-simulation belly and stretch condoms over shoes, Lane said.

A previous approach -- an annual poster and ad contest -- was abandoned in favor of the Teen IDEA Challenge last year when the coalition's teen advisers suggested the need for an interactive event that might appeal to all teenagers, not just the most artistically inclined, Lane said.

Three clinics in Washington County offer free or low-cost pregnancy prevention services to teens -- the Community Free Clinic in Hagerstown, Tri-State Community Health Center in Hancock and the Washington County Health Department.

Ashley, who attended North Hagerstown High School until her daughter, Kayla, was born last summer, said she thought the free condoms available at the health department next door went a long way toward keeping many of her peers from getting pregnant.

"I'd see my friends walking to class having handfuls of condoms," she said.

But for many teens, access to contraception isn't the issue, Ashley said.

She said she knew a girl who wanted to have a baby when she was 14 because she felt like her mother didn't love her. Ashley talked the girl out of the idea initially, but before long, the girl ended up getting pregnant, she said.

In Ashley's case, the problem was a matter of overconfidence in her birth control tactic, she said.

"We had been going a long time, February to November, without (a condom)," she said.

Variety of attitudes

In any social group, teens today have a variety of attitudes toward pregnancy and sex, Lane said.

"There are still some girls who are trying to get pregnant," she said. "There are still some teens, male and female, who really just are using that magical thinking that 'it's not going to happen to me,' and there are some teens who really are concerned and who are taking steps to avoid pregnancy."

One thing the coalition stresses to both young men and young women is that having a baby with someone is not going to make them marry you, Lane said.

Only 20 percent of teen fathers marry their child's teen mom, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Another powerful statistic is the amount of money it takes to raise a baby -- about $750 to $800 per month, Lane said.

For Ashley, the consequences of getting pregnant so young hit hard from the moment the positive result appeared on her pregnancy test.

"I just cried," she said. "I went home and had to lock myself in my room. I felt like I disappointed the world ... I felt like my life was over."

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