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Talking to teenagers about making babies

A committee taps the opinions of teens, clergy and parents to reverse a trend in Pinellas.

What is it like to be a teenager in Pinellas County? What kinds of peer pressures do you experience? These are some of the questions being posed to teenagers in the county in an effort to shift the rising numbers who are becoming parents.

The answers were the usual culprits youth come up against in their passage to adulthood. Drugs. Crime. Alcohol. The strong desire for sex.

"We're trying to get input from those most affected and look at how to tool current programs," said Mary Bennett, Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coordinator.

The Teen Pregnancy Prevention Committee developed two years ago when Pinellas County compared unfavorably to peer communities in teenage birth rates. Between 1989 and 1998, the number of mothers under age 19 dropped from 874 to 795, but initial 1999 statistics are pointing to an upward trend, with an additional 298 reported cases of gonorrhea in females ages 15 to 19.

According to a survey of 1,544 county high school students during the 1998-1999 school year, 54 percent reported having sexual intercourse, 7 percent had sexual intercourse at age 11 or younger, and 10 percent had already had six or more partners.

Abortion rates are not tracked in Florida, but Bennett said that nationwide an estimated 45 percent of teen pregnancies end in abortions.

"A lot of teens engage in at-risk behaviors because they don't see options for their future. They need to develop self-esteem and leadership skills," said Bennett.

About 80 percent of unmarried teen mothers are on welfare within five years of the birth of the child, 66 percent never obtain high school diplomas, and half have another pregnancy within two years, according to the Partnership.

The Partnership has surveyed more than 100 teenagers in the county since April and will continue talking with teens, faith leaders and parents through June. In one recent focus group, at the Urban League in St. Petersburg, four girls and 16 boys ages 12 to 17 were asked what they thought about pregnancy prevention programs.

Both boys and girls said they learned about sex through friends, school and the media. Boys added "experience" to their list. Girls said they prefer talking with female relatives and did not think their parents had difficulty discussing premarital sex. Teachers, school counselors and churches were not considered sources of information.

Bennett said girls favor abstinence more than adults would expect, even after making what they considered to be mistakes.

Some girls commented that "abstinence is the most important tool in prevention. But it's not that simple for everyone. Then, birth control should be taught." Boys said that easier access to birth control was needed to prevent teen pregnancies.

Both boys and girls were opposed to teen pregnancy. All agreed that no one should have a child until he or she is financially able to care for him- or herself and the baby.

"It's interesting that when asked about appropriate ages to have children, they all say teenagers should not. But their behaviors are different. They don't always have the resources to stick with their convictions. We hope to understand what those resources need to be," said Bennett.

One 14-year-old girl said that her 15-year-old sister is seven months pregnant because her boyfriend was the only thing that mattered to her and she thought this was a way to keep him. Now he's never around.

Boys, in a separate room with facilitator Patrick Diggs, also perceived pregnancy as a way for a girl to hold on to a boy or as a decision to copy another girl's choice.

Girls thought programs and employment opportunities would help because "you'd be too involved and busy to get in trouble." When asked what kinds of programs could be formed in the county to further educate and support youths, girls envisioned sports activities and field trips while boys asked for cook-outs to gather friends.

But one boy said that teenagers will have babies if they want to, no matter what others do or say. He added that teenage parents probably had the education and made their choices anyway.

Bolstering goals, aspirations and a sense of optimism in the future is one focus of the Partnership as it determines how to enhance youths' involvement in activities, protect school achievement and coordinate current prevention programs.

The Partnership is funded by the Juvenile Welfare Board, Pinellas WAGES Coalition, United Way of Pinellas County, Pinellas County Department of Health, Federal Healthy Start Teen WAGES Program and Pinellas County government. Analysis and planning are expected to be complete by October 2001.