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Teen births rise

This is the first in a series of three Sunday special reports, today's article explores overall trends in the region.

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

If there's a new baby in your family, workplace or neighborhood, chances are about one in three it was born to an unwed mother, most likely a teen-ager.

"There are too many West Virginians becoming parents way too early," said Denise Smith, adolescent pregnancy prevention specialist for the state Bureau of Public Health.

Smith is not alone in her concern.

"Our phone rings often after certain occasions such as prom and graduation," said Jennifer McWhorter, executive director of the Central West Virginia Crisis Pregnancy Center in Buckhannon. "Girls will come in and get pregnancy tests."

That scenario is familiar to Smith, who cited research indicating about 80 percent of teen pregnancies are unintentional.

"Some adolescents do intend to become pregnant," said Smith, "but, most of the time, they just don't think it's going to happen to them. They're just in denial."

Peggy Hall, a counselor at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, said she has seen the same mindset there.

"Sometimes girls want to get pregnant," Hall said. "They feel a need for someone to love or for someone to love them. Or, they think that's a way to hold the boy."

That kind of thinking is something Smith and a cadre of publicly and privately funded agencies are trying to combat, especially during May, named Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month nationally because of the greater incidence of pregnancy surrounding proms.

The fight is based on health concerns and economic ones.

"Teen mothers especially have a more difficult pregnancy because their bodies aren't really ready. They're more likely to have low birth-weight babies or premature babies," Smith said.

"Teen moms are also more likely to depend on long-term public assistance ... From a financial standpoint, it's a big burden on the taxpayers."

Smith said in 1995, the most recent year on record, $368 million in public assistance was paid to families begun by adolescents.

Statistics reveal the battle is a large one: Nationally and in West Virginia, one in three births is now to an unwed mother, most often a teen; one-fourth of teen mothers have a second child within two years; and 55 percent of state high school students report they are sexually active, according to state Bureau of Health statistics.

The numbers are down from the early '80s, when there was a rate of about 36 births per 1,000 West Virginia females ages 10-19. But there were still 3,220 teen pregnancies in 1998, the most recent year on record. That rate of 27 births per 1,000 teen girls is up two-tenths of a percent from 1997.

That is the first increase in 10 years, Smith said.

"You have a new adolescent group constantly that you need to get the message out to," Smith said of the increase. With superstars like Madonna and Jodie Foster mothering without marrying, unwed pregnancy also has a trendy element it has not had in the past.

Area high school educators say they are doing their part to reach each class year, offering sex education and resources to help teen mothers stay in school until graduation.

Cindy Fazzini, teen parent resource teacher for Harrison County schools, said an arsenal of better sex education and more effective birth control seems to be helping in her community.

Cindi Primovero, child development and parenting instructor at Lewis County High School, said technology has played a small role there as well.

"We had a real problem back in the mid '80s, but our numbers are diminishing," Primovero said.

She uses computerized "babies" in pregnancy-prevention lessons that she believes are partially responsible for the reduction. The babies require "feedings" with a key that must be held in their backs and are programmed to cry sporadically, even in the middle of the night.

"Many times I arrive in the morning and they'll be at my door saying, 'here, take this,' " Primovero said.

For older teens, such as those enrolled as college underclassmen, sheer economics may be a bigger deterrent or a concern for those who already find themselves pregnant.

"If I had a child, how could I support it," many young women ask after discovering they are pregnant, said Cathy Yura, director of the Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at West Virginia University.

Yura has not noticed any increase in pregnancies there, in spite of the fact the issue drew great media attention last week when twin stillborn fetuses were discovered on campus.

While those fetuses died of natural causes, Yura does suspect college-aged teens are more likely than high school students to choose an abortion, thus avoiding a visible pregnancy.

Smith said abortion is rarely chosen by younger teens. Educational programs that send eight state workers around West Virginia focus on abstinence instead. However, state-funded clinics do offer teen-agers free birth control and family-planning services through each county Health Department.

Fazzini said that may not be enough.

"The general public thinks that birth control is so available and so free, but you have to be at the Health Department at 8 a.m. on Monday to get it," Fazzini said of what is reality for her teen mothers. "My girls are in school and if they're absent their parents are called.

"They don't have transportation; they don't know where the Health Department is ... We're talking about 15-year-old kids here. They're just not as knowledgeable as people think."

Ironically, Fazzini said pregnancy-prevention programs and programs such as hers that help pregnant or parenting teens to stay in school are sometimes the victims of their own success.

Ten years ago, Fazzini was working with 120 Harrison County teens who were pregnant or parenting. With about 60 girls now needing her instruction, she had to defend the need for her job this year before the Board of Education.

"Sixty is still a lot of girls who need help," Fazzini said.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.

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