WASHINGTON – When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential nominee, disclosed her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, the announcement stirred a whirlwind of political commentary. For some, it also put a necessary spotlight on the real issue of teen pregnancy.
For those working with pregnant teens on a daily basis, the news that 17-year-old Bristol Palin was five months pregnant may not have raised any eyebrows.
“Pregnant and parenting teens is not a new phenomenon; it has been going on for a long time and it affects teens from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Velma Brown-Walker, program director at Catholic Charities’ Jadonal E. Ford Center for Adolescent Parenting in Chicago, which served 1,454 clients last year.
The overall teen birthrate rose slightly in 2006 after steadily declining since 1991, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report shows the birthrate for teens ages 15-19 rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2006. According to National Vital Statistics Reports, the most recently reported teen pregnancy rate from 2004 is 72.2 per 1,000 teens or 7.2 percent.
Nationwide, programs for pregnant and parenting teenagers were offered at 106 Catholic Charities agencies last year serving almost 25,000 teens, according to Jean Beil, senior vice president of programs and services for Catholic Charities USA.
For some local agencies, teen pregnancy programs have been part of their work for decades. But in recent years, many have increased the type of services they offer, ranging from educating teens about making the right choices, helping with adoption, or providing assistance in infant care and the provision of baby supplies.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago offers programs for pregnant teenagers in neighborhoods throughout the city. Alice Wyatt, director for the agency’s Arts of Living Institute based at local public schools, said the program served 457 teen parents and 349 children last year – a slight increase from the previous year. The program monitors teens and their health needs through case managers who meet with them regularly.
The Jadonal E. Ford Center puts a strong emphasis on providing support groups for new mothers designed to connect them to peers who are also trying to stay in school and adjust to new schedules and new responsibilities.
Ms. Brown-Walker said the challenges for these teens vary depending on their age.
“Younger girls tend to face more pressure than older girls. Students in high school can face intimidation from their peers or other family members. Even worse, some girls face abuse issues, homelessness and an increased risk of dropping out of school. We are seeing more girls coming to us who are between 13 and 16 years of age,” she added.
Mercy Sister Mary Ann LoGiudice, executive director of Community Maternity Services, an agency for pregnant teenagers sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has likewise seen younger clients, as young as 13 and 14, in recent years.
Sister LoGiudice, who has worked with pregnant teens for three decades, said the teens seeking help are not only younger but more often than not they choose to keep their babies instead of giving them up for adoption, which used to be more common.
She said the trend in recent years in caring for these teenagers is less long-term residential care and more practical training, particularly in parenting skills.
Although many Catholic Charities-sponsored programs help teens during pregnancy, others are designed to prevent pregnancy in the first place. One such program is the North Star Youth Partnership, which works with Catholic Charities Community Services in Phoenix.
Diane DeLong, the North Star director, said the program gives youths health education with “a strong abstinence message” coupled with extensive youth-development programs that keep the teens busy after school in sports and leadership programs.
DeLong said she is tired of the criticism of abstinence programs that assumes teachers just tell youths, “Don’t have sex.” The programs are much more involved, she said, teaching young people to avoid risky behavior and to realize the consequences of their actions.