By Lynsey Clark
Alexandra Hernandez didn’t know what to do with her life when she was 15, she says. She knew what she didn’t want to do: go to school.
“I was at this huge school and the teachers didn’t really care,” says Hernandez, now 19. “So I just stopped going.”
She tells her story on the sunny patio of the trailer home she shares with her boyfriend, their son, and her boyfriend’s family. When she became pregnant shortly afterward leaving school, she considered abortion and adoption but neither choice was right for her, so she ultimately decided to have and raise a child at 16.
But instead of dropping out of high school or having another child, Hernandez became involved in an organization that helps prevent additional pregnancies in teen mothers, and encourages them to graduate high school and pursue secondary education.
Studies show that many teenage mothers do not follow the same path. While the number of teen pregnancies has steadily declined in the United States since 1990, some populations of adolescents are still highly vulnerable to pregnancy. Nearly one in five births to teens are repeat births, according to data highlighted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in April.
“Infants born from a repeat teen birth are often born too small or too soon, which can lead to more health problems for the baby,” according to the CDC’s April Vital Signs newsletter, a program that reports recent data for important public health issues.
It also showed that American Indian and Alaskan Natives, Hispanics, and black teens are about 1.5 times more likely to have a repeat teen birth, compared to white teens.
Another report out of the Oregon Health and Science University found that additional births impose significant burdens on young mothers and their families. Teen mothers are less likely to complete high school and more likely to be single parents. Repeat pregnancy in teens is also associated with increased maternal and neonatal morbidity, and continues a cycle of economic deprivation for young women and their families.
Hernandez had the benefit of working with Planned Parenthood of Mar Monte’s Teen Success program, which has been tackling the issue of preventing second births in teens for the last 23 years. The Mar Monte program, which covers 29 counties throughout mid-California and 13 counties in Northern Nevada, has served over 4,000 young women since its inception with a remarkably high rate of success.
“In our program repeat births are as low as 1-2 percent,” said Katrina Slater, the Teen Success replication specialist.
Teen Success is currently comprised of over 22 groups with 12 members each. The program is offered to pregnant or parenting girls, 18 or younger.
Much of the programs recruitment success is found in the financial incentives they give the participating mothers. The teen moms are provided a weekly stipend of $10 and receive a $100 for every 25 weeks attended. Additionally, educational scholarships of up to $2,000 are available to teen moms who graduate the 48-week program and wish to pursue secondary education.
Slater acknowledges that the $10 incentive may be the initial reason girls attend the group, however, the support from the program she says is what keeps them coming back.
“When you think about a young mother who doesn’t drive, struggling to get her homework done, and raise a child making a year commitment to the group, it’s not for the money. It’s the time in the week where they get to themselves. That’s a unique space,” said Slater.
“The first week I was only there strictly for the ten dollars,” Hernandez explains. “But a few weeks into it, everyone started opening up and it became a really good support group. We all got really close, our kids did too. It helps people a lot.”
Researchers are just beginning to study why young mothers who are keenly aware of the challenges and adversities that accompany teen parenthood become pregnant with a second child.
Social workers have suggested some explanations for teens to have second births, including young girls wanting to strengthen their relationship with the father of the child, or teen moms that want to have children in close succession so the babies can play together. Lastly, they suggest a desire to recapture the attention the teen mothers initially received from family and friends when their first child was born.
Categorical risk factors for second pregnancies include age (younger teens are more likely), low socioeconomic status, and having a mother with less than a high school diploma or GED.
The Teen Success in Mar Monte’s recognizes that the best way to help teen moms succeed in their lives is by encouraging high school completion. Research shows that teenage mothers who stay in school and who receive high school diplomas or GEDs are more likely to postpone another birth.
“Over 90 percent of the girls are enrolled in school,” said Slater. “And over 85 percent set goals and 80 percent reach them. In two hours a week we do really great things for these young women.
Hernandez laughs in retrospect, describing how facilitators showed her charts with the economic outcomes between teens who graduated and teens who dropped out of school. “They never let me forget how important graduating was.” After the birth of her son, Hernandez enrolled in a continuation high school where Teen Success held weekly meetings during after-school hours. The facilitators provided her with the support she had been missing.
“The facilitators there are really different. They are there to help you,” explained Hernandez while tying the knot of her son’s superman cape. “They’re not just doing a job. They really care.”
Sexual health education is another important part of preventing second teen births. Hernandez attributes her sexual health education as well as emotional support to the group.
“I didn’t know much about birth control until Teen Success. They just listened and gave advice. They didn’t judge. They helped me figure out who I was and what I wanted. They stressed the importance of learning who I am.”
Hernandez, like many of the women in Teen Success, graduated from high school and has continued pursuing her education at De Anza Community College in Mountain View, Ca. She hopes to focus on social work and one day become a group facilitator herself. “I want to work for Planned Parenthood when I graduate because they really care about girls. They made such a difference.”
Lynsey Clark is a second year student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Social Welfare and is a summer fellow in Fostering Media Connection’s Journalism for Social Change program.