Special Reports

Teen dads asked to become men overnight

FRESNO -- As he chowed down on a plate of tacos at a popular taquería, 18-year-old Samuel Ramírez -- who wears braces on his teeth, and sports a goatee and mustache -- looked to be walking the line between teenager and adult.

That's true in more ways than one. Samuel, who graduated from Roosevelt High School last week, is also the father of a son, 8-month-old Isaiah.

That balancing act extends to other aspects of his life. As he finished up his courses this spring, Samuel worked at Home Depot, in order to help support his son.

As he prepares to study criminology at Fresno City College, with the hopes of becoming a police officer who works with youth, Samuel is also thinking about when he and his girlfriend can finally move in together, and share the responsibilities of raising their son, who was born premature and weighed just four pounds, three ounces.

Samuel comes from a traditional family, he said, so he does not want to move in with his girlfriend until they are married. "I want to try and abide by my parents' law, and by what I want, too," he said.

In many San Joaquín Valley counties, the Latino teen pregnancy rate is more than double the state rate of 32.1 births for every 1,000 females ages 15-19. In Tulare County, for example, the teen birth rate is 78.2 births for every 1,000 teenage Latinas; in Kings County, it's 76.3 births for every 1,000 teenage Latinas, according to the Public Health Institute.

Largely left out of those numbers -- and out of programs that support parenting teens -- are teen fathers like Samuel.

"Historically, teen pregnancy prevention was a problem that was seen specifically for girls and young women," said Héctor Sánchez-Flores, director of the National Latino Fatherhood and Family Institute's California Fatherhood Initiative. "There was a reason for that: You can very clearly see the impact on young parents when you see a young mother with a child, and all the supports that are needed.

"Young women were part of the solution, but young men were strictly part of the problem, and weren't part of the solution."

That young men are often excluded from teen parenting programs -- and sometimes from their babies' lives -- might explain how the stereotype of the 'absent teen father' gets perpetuated, said Pedro Elías, a health educator with Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. He has worked closely with teen fathers and young men through Planned Parenthood's Male Involvement Program.

"I think there are young dads who do want to be around, who do want to help, and participate and contribute, but they don't have the support from either the family, or from the community as a whole," Elías said.

Without that support, though, teen fathers -- and especially their children -- face tough odds.

Boys and girls without involved fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, twice as likely to end up in jail, and two to three times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Teen girls who don't have a father in their life are two times more likely to initiate sexually activity early and are seven times more likely to get pregnant, compared to girls with fathers present, according to the campaign.

Research suggests that teen fathers have lower education levels, according to the National Campaign. But becoming the father of twins Aiden César and Fabián Arron only inspired César, also a recent graduate of Roosevelt High School, to attend Fresno City in the fall, and pursue a career in education.

Before, "I just wanted to graduate, and now I want to go to college," César said, speaking over the loud music in the taco shop. "I didn't want a career, I just wanted a job."

Eight out of ten teen fathers do not marry the mothers of their first children, according to the campaign. But César said he does hope to marry his girlfriend -- though he said he wants to buy them a big house first.

The couple and their two children, who are now about one year and three months old, currently live in César's parents' house.

"My dad always stayed around, so why can't I stay around with my kids?" he said.

Sitting side by side, their plates of tacos now emptied, César and Samuel agreed that their lives have changed since becoming fathers.

Now that they are parents, Samuel said he and his girlfriend don't go out like they used to.

"We used to go to movies a lot, but not anymore," he said. "We can't take him because he will cry."

When it was suggested that Samuel rent movies on DVD instead, César responded like an experienced parent: "They will break the CDs," he said of the children.

They acknowledged that, as teen fathers, it is unique to be playing a prominent role in their childrens' lives. Both know young women who are single moms.

César used to bring his sons to Fresno Unified School District's Parent and Child Education (PACE) program at Roosevelt. Samuel was the only teen father who participated in a weekly support group for teen moms at the high school.

"You went to it?" César said with surprise, when he learned Samuel attended the weekly teen mom meetings. "They kept asking me to go. I used to be the only father (in the PACE program.)"

The types of support these young men are providing to their girlfriends and children are crucial, said Elías, of Planned Parenthood.

"There is more to that than just providing (money) -- they can do a lot of other things that don't cost money, like being there, and giving their child their love, and nurturing them," Elías said. "That's going to go a long way."

Still, the experience is one Samuel and César would not recommend to other young men.

"Don't get serious," César said, noting the possible consequences of being sexually active.

"You're not going to die if you wait a few months, or a few years -- at least until you're out of high school," Samuel said.

"If they're not going to wait for you to finish high school (to become sexually active), what is going to make you think they're going to stick around if you have a kid?"