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High school, prom, graduation and motherhood

This is the second in a series of three Sunday special reports on teen pregnancy. Today's article explores how pregnancy effects the lives of teen-aged mothers.

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Telenna Selmon's first Mother's Day present came a week early.

The Lewis County High School senior's six-pound, 15-ounce baby boy was delivered May 7.

"I think I was more surprised than anything," Selmon said of that October day when she discovered unprotected sex with her boyfriend had led to a pregnancy.

Her mother and father had other feelings.

"She was mostly disappointed, that's what she tells me now," Selmon said of her mother, who now encourages other sexually active youth to use birth control.

A week into motherhood, the baby's father is now an ex-boyfriend, her parents are providing her financial support and Selmon has some last few high school activities to attend to.

"She's keeping him during prom and graduation," Selmon said of her mother and making her first babysitting arrangements.

Indeed, Selmon has missed out on few school activities. She attended regular classes until five days before delivery, when a six-week period of homebound instruction began.

With three or four classmates pregnant at the same time, Selmon said she received nothing but positive reinforcement from peers.

"They thought it was neat. They noticed my stomach getting bigger and bigger and they were just amazed."

Amazed, or not, Selmon now has a word of advice to fellow teen girls as she faces solo parenting and a job search.

"It's turning out OK with me, but it might not turn out that way for you ... your life does change."

Other regional girls' stories are equally complicated. One is an eighth-grade drop out. The father of another's child is now in jail. Another was kicked out of her home by angry parents.

Looking at these kinds of needs is a main goal of the Christian-oriented Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which have regional branches in Harrison, Upshur, Randolph and Marion counties.

"Usually, they're really scared," said Jennifer McWhorter, the unpaid executive director of the Buckhannon CPC, which opened a downtown location in September.

"There's always the, 'my parents are going to kill me' scenario."

Once the shock wears off and parents are told, CPC volunteers begin working with pregnant teens to ensure good nutrition and pre-natal care and to develop a plan.

The views of the teen's parents, the baby's father and his parents are examined first.

"When a girl hears all this input from all these different directions, it can be very confusing," McWhorter said.

While pro-abstinence CPCs do not refer for abortions, they do help pregnant teens choose between keeping their child and adoption, providing free legal assistance if adoption is chosen.

"Even if they say, 'I want to keep my baby,' we really encourage them to work through the adoption part of it (worksheets that identify parenting assets and needs)," McWhorter said. "Ultimately, it's up to the girl."

Few West Virginia teens choose abortion or adoption, according to Denise Smith, adolescent pregnancy prevention specialist with the state Bureau of Public Health.

While McWhorter remains neutral in the adoption/baby-keeping decision process, she said what often happens when teens keep their babies is that their parents also parent the infant.

"I don't know that they mean to, but the teens find that they want to go on with their life -- there's a dance tonight."

To help those teen mothers who keep their babies become better, more responsible parents for themselves, most CPC programs offer parent education. After delivery, the center has classes on topics such as breastfeeding and nutrition. Mothers who take the classes receive coupons they can use to acquire baby supplies, clothing and furniture.

Free teen contraceptive and pre-natal care is also available through county health departments, which also have a no-abortion referral policy, according to Harrison County staff.

The scores of young mothers these private and public clinics and other medical centers have seen in recent months are certainly not alone. The United States leads the industrialized world with a teen-pregnancy rate equal to two girls becoming pregnant every minute of every day, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In West Virginia, there were 3,220 babies born to teen mothers in 1998, the most recent year on record. After a decade of declining numbers, that .2 percent increase from 1997 has many health officials stepping up their public awareness activities. This is especially true in May, National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month.

One of the bigger challenges these young mothers face nationally is completing the education they will need to be able to support themselves and their child. This economic prospect is common now that a growing number of pregnant teens are electing not to marry the baby's father.

"I've seen a couple drop out recently that I was upset about," said Peggy Hall, a counselor at Buckhannon-Upshur High School. "They're good kids."

Parental embarrassment can contribute to the problem, she added.

"Sometimes parents will call and want their daughter to be on homebound," Hall said of an in-home, private tutoring program BUHS offers. "I tell them pregnancy is a temporary condition, not a fatal one. We expect the girls to stay in school until they deliver. They then have six weeks and they have to come back unless they have medical complications."

Hall said that may sound harsh, but so is the reality of trying to find employment without at least a high school diploma. The longer the teen mother waits to return to school, the greater her own parental responsibility will be and the less likely she is to finish, Hall said.

Cindi Primovero said the situation is similar at Lewis County High School, where she is child development and parenting instructor. LCHS strongly encourages pregnant and parenting teens to stay in school.

"With strong parental support, their (teen mothers') educational pursuits here can go on and should go unaffected."

In Harrison County, a teen-parenting program has been a great success toward that end, said Cindy Fazzini, teen-parent resource teacher.

"We are keeping more of them in school," said Fazzini, who has about 60 girls involved in her programming.

Fazzini said some of her students have gone on to complete college, as well.

Of course, some teen pregnancies actually occur in college. Those mothers are especially likely to feel the need to complete school, according to Cathy Yura, director of the Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at West Virginia University.

"More and more young women see that they're going to have to do this by themselves," Yura said.

Yura added college-aged mothers often have the maturity to develop a strong support network that includes cooperative babysitting.

Beyond that, "some people have really good coping mechanisms and some people don't," Yura said.

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

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