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‘Our babies having babies’

By TIM REEVES
The Selma Times-Journal

Teenage pregnancy may have found a following when it appears in a reality-show on MTV, but the reality in Alabama’s Black Belt is the number of teenage pregnancies is alarming and is a problem deserving far more attention than an hour-long show on cable.

According to the Alabama Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Alabama has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the United States, and those counties that make up the Black Belt have the highest in Alabama.

“In recent years we have seen an increase but aren’t sure just why,” said Chris Haag, deputy director of the Family Health Services division of the Alabama Department of Public Health. “But, we can say that over the last decade we have seen these statistics improve.”

While the total statistics for 2010 are still being compiled, the 2009 figures collected by the Alabama Department of Public Health give a clear look at just how prevalent the problem is.

In 2009, 8,365 children were born to females between the ages of 10 and 19. And, of those, the youngest became a mother at the age of 12.

“You have girls becoming mothers that are not emotionally or financially prepared to become mothers,” Haag said. “It is a problem.”

Of the 18 counties that make up Alabama’s Black Belt, Lowndes County ranks the worst by percentage of teenage pregnancies. The county also ranks worst in the state according to the 2010 Voices for Alabama’s Children Kids Count Data Book.

Dallas County ranks the second worst in the Black Belt and the second worst in Alabama.

“We see it a lot around here,” Dallas County Health Department director Ashvin Pakih said. “It does seem like it has become more socially acceptable.”

Community and school involvement

For Jamie Keith, the work on preventing or at the very least slowing the rate of teenage pregnancies in Alabama has been a project since 1999.

As executive director of Alabama Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies, Keith said it should not be a matter of if educational programs should be placed into area schools, but when.

“There is already federal funding in place for a number of programs that can provide evidence-based teen pregnancy programs,” Keith said. “These programs are age appropriate and have proven to be effective.”

Haag said the federal health care legislation that passed earlier this year does revive funding for abstinence programs to be put back into schools in Alabama.

The funding for the program had been cut two years ago, at which point all of the abstinence education programs in schools ended.

“We are working now on the guidelines for distributing the funds to groups we already work with throughout the state, such as YMCAs and other organizations that have proven to be effective,” Haag said. “We hope to have those ready by the first of the year and begin contacting groups.”

Keith said those abstinence programs, just like the evidence-based programs, must also be medically accurate.

For Lowndes County, the work right now is focusing on family planning efforts.

Julie Till, nursing coordinator for the Lowndes County Health Department, said the agency has resources for family planning available to all women, both adults and teenagers.

“These options include birth control, pap smears, etc.,” Till said.

When asked if she knew Lowndes County was the lowest rated county in Alabama when it came to teenage pregnancies, Till, who has only been at the Hayneville location for nine months said, “I honestly had no idea.”

But the news is not all bad throughout the Black Belt. There are counties who have shown improvement and are continuing to seek help.

“I had a group from Linden just the other day call me and ask for help in setting up an evidence-based curriculum,” Keith said. “That is what we are here to do; to help others in getting the word out and making a difference.”

As of the latest Kids Count Data Book, Marengo County, where Linden is located, raked 40th in the state in teen pregnancy rates, which is the third best in the region.

Education changes

Aside from the community-based programs advocated by state agencies and advocacy groups, Keith said work must also be done at the state level in changing the education requirements.

“Right now, sex education is an option and not a requirement,” Keith said. “That needs to change and can be changed.”

She added that the state does mandate HIV/AIDS education, which, if slightly changed, could include sex education language that would address “sexual risk-taking behavior.”

Costs to the community

Information from the Alabama Center on Health Statistics shows that teen pregnancies not only impact the life of the mother, but the pregnancies often come at a risk to the child.

Of the 8,365 children born to teenagers in 2009, nearly 12 percent of the births were considered to have been low weight births. Of those low-weight births, 12 percent of those children later died.

Those numbers hold true on the county level in the Black Belt, according to the Kids Count Data Book, that shows many of the counties who rank the lowest in births to teenage mothers also report high numbers of low weight births and infant mortality rates.

Sumter County, which ranks 44th in the state in teenage pregnancies, is the worst in the state in percent of births that are low weight and 42nd in the state in infant mortality.

In fact, in Sumter County, the trend has worsened in recent years with 16.1 percent of births in 2008 being low-weight births compared to just 10.1 percent in Alabama.

And the costs can actually be calculated in dollars.

According to the Alabama Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies, two third of families begun by a young, unmarried mother are poor and that “teen mothers are less likely to complete the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job.”

The organization also figured the public cost of teen childbearing in Alabama in 2004, the most recent information that was available, was $178 million, with most of those costs to the public being associated with the “negative consequences for the children of teen mothers.”

The group said public costs were:
* $40 million for public health care
* $27 million for child welfare
* $16 million for incarceration
* $59 million in lost tax revenue due to decreased earnings over the children’s career.

The trend is somewhat improving

Although officials report the number of teen pregnancies has worsened over the past few years, the long-term trend is improving.

According to the Kids Count Data Book, “after steadily declining from 61 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19 in 2000, the teen birth rate in Alabama did not change between 2006 and 2007. It stood at 54 births per 1,000 teens in both years.”

As for the efforts to improve the teenage pregnancy rates in the Black Belt, language from Keith’s advocacy group, likely sums it up the best.

“Alabama communities can continue to reduce social and public costs of teen childbearing by deliberately assessing the needs of youth and their parents, indentifying existing community resources and implementing proven-effective programs to prevent teen pregnancy.”