FRESNO -- Since 1991, the state's teen pregnancy rate has decreased by 50 percent. The teen birth rate for Latinos has also dropped, though it remains the highest among all population groups.
Those improvements could be in jeopardy.
In order to close a massive budget gap, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed chopping funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs that have proven to be effective.
The result of eliminating such programs -- which strive to provide non-biased, medically accurate health information, and inform youth about reproductive health resources available to them -- could have a devastating effect on California youth, experts said.
They warn that cutting funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs -- resulting in a lack of accurate reproductive health information for youth -- could cause teen birth rates to increase again.
"It is particularly sad that programs like that are losing funding -- programs that we know have a positive impact," said Peter Belden, program office for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation's population program.
"We know that some of these programs have really worked in the past when they were evaluated, and I think by having fewer of them in the future, it is less likely that the success will continue."
Particularly frustrating to teen pregnancy prevention experts is a simple fact: It costs relatively little money to fund teen pregnancy prevention, but costs much more to support an at-risk teen mother and her vulnerable child.
It is estimated that for every dollar invested in teen pregnancy prevention programs, taxpayers save $4 in public costs.
For example, reducing funding to two programs, as suggested in the governor's May budget proposal -- the Community Challenge Grants, which fund community-based organizations working to reduce teen pregnancies, and the Cal-Learn program, a program for pregnant and parenting teens on welfare that helps them complete high school -- would free up about $65 million for the fiscal year.
That savings hardly compares with teen pregnancy's cost 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 2011 Public Health Institute report.
Just in Tulare County -- which has the highest teen birth rate in the state -- teen pregnancy costs society as much as $110 million each year, according to the Public Health Institute.
"The short- and long-term savings as a result of these programs far exceed the cost of funding them," said Evi Hernández, director of program services for the California Health Collaborative, which funds rural teen pregnancy prevention programs in Fresno, Kings and Merced counties.
Those programs, which were funded through the state's Community Challenge Grant program, are expected to lose their funding in the 2011-12 budget.
"We are just fearful that with these cuts, we are going to see, besides the reverse in teen birth rate trends, we're going to see additional costs to caring for children of teen parents," Hernández said.
During the event, participants attended sessions on health and social issues impacting youth, including teen pregnancy.
"I wish I would have been one of the teen girls sitting on one of those chairs listening," said Lizbeth Carnero, a former teen mom who shared her experience during one of the sessions. "I wish I would have known this, so I could have given my son a better life."
But the conference will likely not be held next year.
The event was organized by the California Health Collaborative's Fresno Rural Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program, which is funded through the state Office of Family Planning's Community Challenge Grant program.
The governor's proposed 2011-12 budget eliminates the grant program, which allotted $20 million to community-based organizations working to reduce adolescent and unwed pregnancies.
The result of dismantling the grant program, and the community-based programs it supports, would be "huge," said Hernández of the California Health Collaborative.
"We are the only program in (Fresno, Kings and Merced) counties that target the rural community, both at the school district-level, by providing school-based comprehensive sexual education, and at the community-wide level, by providing different types of resources," he said.
"If we are not able to do this, there is going to be less education to the students about reproductive health, and they are not going to get the information about available resources, including the Family PACT program."
The Family PACT program provides free and confidential family planning services to uninsured men, women, and teens. It served nearly 1.8 million low-income Californians in 2009.
That lack of information, he said, could cause a spike in teen pregnancy rates. Currently, teen births in California are at a record low, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Statewide, the teen birth rate in 2009 was 32.1 teen births for every 1,000 teenagers. For Latinos -- the ethnic group with the highest teen birth rate, but also with the fastest decline in teen birth rate -- the rate is 50.8 births for every 1,000 teens.
"It's a strong possibility that without that comprehensive sexuality education, that we might see a rise in the teen birth rates," he said.
As community-based teen pregnancy programs are eliminated, schools will become the primary place for youth to learn about reproductive health.
That, too, could have serious consequences, especially in the San Joaquín Valley, where some school districts are not offering medically accurate comprehensive sexual education, said Phyllida Burlingame, sex education policy director of ACLU of Northern California.
"Unfortunately, there is a significant problem of lack of good comprehensive sex education in the Valley," Burlingame said. "It is a missing link because comprehensive sexual education has been proven to be effective both in delaying the onset of sexual activity among young people, and increasing condom and contraceptive use among sexually active youth."
"It is a double whammy for these young people: If the community-based programming is pulled out from under them, and at the same time, what they are getting in the schools is inaccurate and denying them important information, it leaves them in a very difficult situation."
Gov. Brown has also proposed cutting funding for a program that supports teen parents.
The proposal worries experts and those who work directly with young mothers and fathers, who have seen how effective these programs are in helping teen parents stay in school, maintain their family size, and prevent long-term welfare dependence.
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.
In his May revision, Brown proposed suspending for one year the Cal-Learn program, which each month helps about 15,000 pregnant and parenting teens -- who receive welfare support through California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWORKs) -- to attend and graduate from high school or its equivalent.
The proposal would save $45 million in CalWORKS by eliminating all supportive services for teen parents, but maintaining the cash bonuses and fiscal supplements for pregnant or parenting teens who continue to make satisfactory progress each report card period and upon graduation.
That comes on top of recent cuts to other programs that support teen parents.
In February 2009, the Department of Education's California School Age Families Education Program (Cal-SAFE) was placed into a block grant, allowing local educational agencies flexibility with the use of funds and program requirements through 2013.
Cal-SAFE, which provides academic support for parenting students, and childcare and development care for their children, aims to help teen parents graduate from high school, and avoid having a second pregnancy before they graduate.
Mary Gwinn, who supervises the Tulare Adult School's Child Development Center, which is funded through Cal-SAFE, said reducing funding for programs that support teen parents will not save the state money.
"They are still going to be impacting the state money-wise," she said. "My opinion is, it would be much better to get them through school, and get them an education, so they can supply livings for their children and take care of their children themselves."
Also, the state Adolescent Family Life Program -- which provides teen parents with case management and supportive services to students not enrolled in Cal-Learn -- lost $10.8 million in state funding in 2009.
And in 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated the Male Involvement Program and the Teen Smart Outreach programs, and severely cut the Information and Education program.
Jan Malvin, senior researcher at the University of California, San Francisco's Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, said the state's programs and policies dedicated to teen pregnancy prevention and support of parenting teens developed to meet the needs of youth in California.
Now, she said, residents and the legislature have a responsibility to support these programs and policies.
"I think it is a bad idea to dismantle the infrastructure in California," she said. "We need all the legs of the stool: Education programs, support programs for teen parents, and we need to do outreach to connect teens with reproductive health services, like FamilyPACT."
Claire Brindis, a professor of pediatrics and the director of the Bixby Center at UCSF, agreed.
"It is going to be a really black day in California when we are dismantling the systems that we have put in place that reach out to young people to give them these kinds of tools," she said.