The Youngest Parents
The San Joaquín Valley's continuing struggle with teen pregnancies
(Published Wednesday, May 11th, 2011 02:41PM)
First in a multiple-part series.
TULARE -- Yolanda Álvarez had not planned on becoming a mom at age 15.
Now 18 years old, the Tulare Western High School graduate said she does not regret having her daughter, who is two years old. She is, however, aware of the adolescence she missed out on, once she became a mother.
"You are 16 years old and if you become a mom, you're going to be a mom for the rest of your life," Álvarez said on a recent Tuesday morning.
As she spoke, she sat on a miniature white chair in the Tulare Adult School's Child Development Center, and ran her fingers through her long black hair. Her daughter, Evelyn, who sported a purple shirt and pigtails, played nearby.
"My baby is worth it, but it's better if you wait and enjoy your high school," she said.
Álvarez is just one of the thousands of Latinas in the San Joaquín Valley who become teen moms each year.
Teen birth rates in California have decreased 50 percent since 1991, but the majority-Latino San Joaquín Valley counties of Tulare, Kings, Madera, Fresno and Merced still rank among the 10 counties with the state's highest teen birth rates.
In the Valley, the high birth rates are powered by Latinos, who still have the highest teen birth rate of all population groups, despite significant declines in recent years.
Across the state, the Latino teen birth rate in 2009 was 50.8 births for every 1,000 Latinas ages 15-19, which is almost four times higher than the non-Latino white birth rate of 13 births for every 1,000 teenage females. Tulare County's Latino birth rate -- 78.3 births per 1,000 -- is more than double the state's birth rate of 32.1 births per 1,000.
Any improvements in the region's teen birth rate mean more promising futures for the Valley's young people, and decreased costs to society. But the improvements in the regional and statewide teen pregnancy rates could be in jeopardy.
As the state's fiscal crisis drags on, the programs and services that have been credited with helping to lower the teen birth rate are being chopped, or eliminated. Without those programs, the next generations of teenagers will have less access to teen pregnancy prevention programs and reproductive health services.
"The teen pregnancy rate has been dropping like a stone over the past two decades," said Bill Albert, chief program officer of the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "In our view, it is one of the nation's great, great success stories over the past two decades."
But, he cautioned, the country as a whole, as well as California, still have teen birth rates higher than those of any other Western nation. And without teen pregnancy prevention programs and services, that rate may not continue to drop.
"The problem is teen pregnancy isn't polio," Albert said. "You don't develop a vaccine. We are creating new teens every day in this country, and this requires constant attention."
The factors causing teen pregnancy are as complex as any young couple's personal story.
But in the San Joaquín Valley, high teen pregnancy rates essentially boil down to two issues, said Heather Meyers, a health educator with Planned Parenthood Mar Monte.
"It really goes down to the lack of knowledge and access to health care," Meyers said.
In rural communities, she added, "the information (often) disseminates more slowly, or there is none, and that can be really difficult for people, because knowledge is where it all starts at."
Latino teens growing up in the Valley -- especially in the poor, rural, isolated communities -- face further challenges in delaying pregnancy.
Dr. Antonia Biggs, senior researcher at the University of California, San Francisco's Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, said teen pregnancy is part of a larger socioeconomic issue.
"If teens don't feel like they are going to be able to go far in school and get a good job, some of them see having a baby as a natural thing they can do and be good at," Biggs said.
For some teens, she said, having a child is viewed, "not as something that's going to interfere in their goals, but a logical future goal."
Héctor Sánchez-Flores, director of the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute's California Fatherhood Initiative, agreed. He said teen pregnancy rates are often high in communities where young people lack a sense of hope or opportunity.
"If you look at those communities that are deemed 'hot spots' for teen pregnancy, you might find that young people see very few options for their future," he said. "Teen pregnancy is part of a community malaise."
Latino parents -- and entire communities -- also need to do a better job of educating young people about sexual health and prevention, he said.
Immigrant Latinos face unique difficulties in delaying pregnancy, said Biggs, the UCSF researcher. About 26 percent of Latino immigrants in the country, ages 18 and 19, are mothers, according to a 2009 Pew Hispanic Center report.
Biggs said immigrant youth can feel socially isolated in a new country, and face language barriers that hinder them from succeeding in school. They also have more traditional beliefs about marriage, pregnancy and gender roles.
On top of those factors are the teen beliefs and desires that transcend culture and geography: The desire to be viewed as an adult; the need for unconditional love from a child or partner; and the mistaken belief that, "it won't happen to me," said Albert, of the National Campaign.
That, in part, is what happened to Álvarez, the Tulare teen mom.
She used birth control pills, but, she admits, "I wasn't using it right."
She now cautions all sexually active young women to use protection.
"When you are young, you don't care and you think nothing is going to happen," said Álvarez, who emigrated from México City when she was 14. "But it does happen, and you can't change your life."
Over the last two decades, California and the Valley have lowered their teen pregnancy rates by investing in a variety of youth-focused programs.
Those programs included comprehensive sexual education courses with an abstinence component, that were appropriate to the age and development of students; youth-friendly community health centers; radio and billboard advertisements targeted at youth; and positive youth development courses, according to Sánchez-Flores.
"There was no one silver or magic bullet," he said. "Every component reinforced different things."
The distinct initiatives were intended to counter the varied causes -- and documented consequences -- of teen parenthood.
Compared to those who delay their pregnancy, teen moms are more likely to drop out of school, remain unmarried, and live in poverty, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Children of teen parents are more likely to be born at low birth weight, grow up poor, live in single-parent homes, experience abuse and neglect, and enter the child welfare system. Daughters of teen moms are more likely to become teen parents themselves, and sons of teen moms are more likely to be incarcerated.
Teen pregnancy also imposes serious costs to taxpayers and society -- in terms of lost tax revenue based on mothers' and fathers' lower incomes, public assistance costs, costs for increased foster placement and incarceration of children, and tax revenue losses based on children's incomes when they reach young adulthood, according to a 2010 Public Health Institute report.
In Tulare County, for example, which has the state's highest teen birth rate, teen pregnancy costs taxpayers $28 million annually, and costs society $110 million annually, according to a 2011 Public Health Institute report.
But many of the teen pregnancy prevention programs that worked to reverse these trends have already been cut, or have been threatened with budget cuts. The situation could prove disastrous to efforts to continue lowering teen pregnancy rates in the region, across the nation, and for Latinos, whose teen pregnancy rates remain stubbornly high.
"The current group of teens have received some dosage (of teen pregnancy prevention information,) said Sánchez-Flores. "Wait one or two years, and we have a new cohort of teens, that don't possess this information, and they will be the new ones that get blamed if the rates go up, due to the adults' decision."
Álvarez is determined to buck the negative trends regarding teen mothers and their children.
She has a good relationship with Evelyn's father, and is grateful that he has supported her through these challenging years. He is also an immigrant from México City, and works at a dairy.
"I feel lucky that I have my baby's dad with me," she said. "I have other friends, and their babies' dads just took off."
Besides her boyfriend, Álvarez also relies on the Tulare Adult School's Child Development Center for help in raising her daughter. Álvarez's mother moved about 45 miles north to Fresno, so Álvarez has brought Evelyn to the daycare since the baby was just one month old.
"I didn't have my mom for her to take care of my baby," Álvarez said, "so it's a good thing I found this day care. If not, I wouldn't have been able to finish high school."
"Being a teen mom is already hard, but if you don't have help it is harder."
She also places a strong emphasis on education.
Today, she is improving her English through courses at the Tulare Adult School. Once Evelyn enters pre-school, Álvarez plans on attending college, and studying to become an X-ray technician.
"I know the statistic: Kids from teen moms become teen moms, too," Álvarez said. "I don't want that to happen to her."
"I want her to do well in school. I want to be there for her and encourage her... I want for her to learn from my experience, and not be a teen mom."