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Teen-age parents depend on public support

This is the last in a series of three Sunday special reports on teen pregnancy. Today's article explores the impact of teen pregnancy on the local community.

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

It may take only two to create a teen pregnancy, but raising the child that results takes a proverbial village -- at least in terms of money.

In public funding alone, about $368 million was spent on aid to families started by adolescent West Virginians in 1995, the most recent year on record with the state Bureau of Health. That amount does not include private support, such as that provided by pregnancy centers, churches and extended family.

Denise Smith, adolescent pregnancy prevention specialist with the state Bureau of Health, said she would like to see more of the tax dollars invested in prevention instead of aid. Currently, about 1 cent is allocated toward state pregnancy prevention programs per $1 spent on family aid, Smith said.

Because of the sheer amount of money involved in aid, Smith believes that equation will shift as more welfare reform is enacted.

"There's a lot more sex education needed, not just glorified plumbing lessons," Smith said. "I see prevention education being increased, not only for the financial reasons but because of recognizing the unrealized potential of these adolescents who are having children."

In the meantime, those involved with supplying the aid say it is a must to ensure the children of teen parents will someday become healthy, self-supporting adults.

"Teen diets are not the best. They tend to eat a lot of junk food," said Dottie Jones, a nutritionist with Women, Infants and Children in Elkins, of one aspect of need.

"It's really important for them to get the nutritional information that they need to have."

WIC, a federally-funded program, supplies lower-income pregnant mothers and children up to 5 years old with nutrition education and vouchers for nutritionally dense foods such as peanut butter, vitamin-fortified cereals, cheese, rice and eggs.

Jones sees WIC as a front-line defense against nutrition-related birth defects.

Indeed, inadequate nutrition is a major risk factor for children born into low-income families, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, a private New York foundation. Such children are four times more likely to be in a single-parent family, such as that of a teen-age girl, foundation information states.

That is one reason, government aid, now referred to as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is looking at ways to make every family a two-parent one, at least in terms of finances.

Mary Bolton, director of the Hospital Paternity Project, said that state Department of Health and Human Resources program mandates paternity be established before cash TANF assistance is paid to any single parent.

The project's efforts generally begin in the hospital.

"If mom and dad are not married, that is probably one of the few times that you get them together," Bolton said of delivery. "The chances of that relationship staying intact are pretty slim."

Establishing paternity by affidavit, which involves the infant's grandparents in the case of teen pregnancies, is an important step toward giving that baby a solid economic future, Bolton said.

It can also go a long way toward cutting down the amount of tax dollars needed to support a low-income child, she added.

Bolton said the non-custodial parent is assessed child support payments by a judge, in the same way support is decreed after a divorce. Even if the non-custodial parent is a teen-aged boy, he is assessed some support responsibilities based on income, she added.

"Dollar for dollar, what dad is paying is reduced from the TANF aid," Bolton said, of the amount taxpayers save. The non-custodial parent is also responsible to pay the government back for whatever tax-supported TANF cash was paid out, she added.

In spite of these reform strategies, TANF aid to teens can add up to a significant amount over the years, especially when other facets, such as food stamps or Medicaid, are factored in.

In West Virginia, there is a 60-month, lifetime limit on payments, according to Sue Buster, project manager with the state Office of Family Support. But payments made to those under the age of 18 and living with parents or in an approved setting do not count toward the limit.

Another rule that requires those receiving cash assistance longer than 25 months to work five hours per week, can be satisfied by educational activity, meaning teen parents could potentially receive aid for years.

An additional effect on the community can often be seen in the distribution of parenting responsibilities, according to Cindi Primovero, child development and parenting instructor at Lewis County High School.

She sees many grandparents shouldering a large part of the responsibility.

"Not only do they have a teen, now they have an infant," Primovero said.

To make sure fewer Americans are born into such high-need situations, and more adolescents become self-supporting adults, Smith sees only one solution: Reduce the teen-pregnancy rate.

With a slight increase in 1998, its most recent recorded year, West Virginia teens produced more than 3,000 infants in a year. Smith wants to get back onto a decreasing track, using May, national Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, as a springboard.

"We can't focus on how we reach that goal," Smith said of controversy surrounding contraceptives, abstinence and sex education. "We just have to reach that goal."

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

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