NYC’s Teen Pregnancy Campaign Favors Fear over Support

by Betsy Krebs

Alison came over for dinner the other night. She is 25 and works at a bank on Wall Street. She is thinking about going to graduate school, hoping to get into the field that really interests her- criminal justice. She is smart and lovely, quick to flash a beautiful smile.

Also at the dinner was Alison’s daughter, a chatty, polite nine-year-old.

Which means, of course, that Alison had her when she was … sixteen. A teen mother, and one who was in foster care when she was pregnant and had her baby.

Last week in New York City there was a mini-controversy about a new city  “Teen Pregnancy Prevention” campaign which features ads with “hard-hitting facts about the money and time costs of parenting, and the negative consequences of having a child before you are ready.”

The campaign has ads in subways and buses, a video, and an interactive texting program.  One poster shows a crying toddler and says: “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”

Another shows a little girl with text that says: “Honestly Mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?”

Planned Parenthood of New York City immediately denounced the campaign for “shaming existing and to-be teen parents and their children.”  Planned Parenthood says the ads “perpetuate gender stereotypes and presents stigmatizing, fear-based messages that have been proven to be ineffective in preventing teen pregnancies.”

They note that the campaign does not provide information about access to health care or affordable and effective birth control options, which are proven strategies for addressing teen pregnancy, and have in fact brought the teen pregnancy rate in NYC down significantly in the last decade.

Giving the city the benefit of the doubt, the campaign is well intentioned. We can all agree that it’s best for children, parents and society for people to have babies when they are physically, emotionally, and financially ready.

At the same time, most would agree that judging and mocking those who are vulnerable  feels unseemly, inappropriate, kind of mean. (Haven’t they heard about anti-bullying campaigns? )

And everyone agrees that teens have had babies throughout history, with sometimes good and sometimes bad outcomes. So one comes away with the feeling that the debate is important, but sort of predictable.

A lot of us who are good at youth work don’t like predictable; it’s boring. The best social workers, teachers, case managers, lawyers, agency directors, and judges working with young people enjoy the energy and excitement from having some unexpected conversations, of learning from our youth clients or students, having our eyes opened to new perspectives on life.

You work with young people partly so you can keep yourself open to the surprises.

My dinner guest Alison reminds me of this. We met when she was sixteen and eight months pregnant, living in a group home in the city foster care system. Alison showed up for an orientation session for the weekly seminar our organization was offering in order to learn how to advocate for herself.

After the first session, the woman facilitating the seminar came to ask me whether to encourage the very pregnant student to stay in the seminar or to take it another semester, when she could meet the strict attendance and homework requirements for the 12-week period.

I hesitated before answering.  I knew that some girls and young women, during pregnancy and after, became incredibly strong and determined. At the same time, I was aware of the risks, problems and hurdles that were there for a teen having a baby under any circumstances. I worried that Alison was taking on an impossible task by signing up for the seminar.

I told the facilitator of the seminar that it was up to Alison to decide. She enrolled.

Sure enough, a month later she gave birth to her daughter. And, she was back in class the week after! She had a near-perfect attendance record. She ended up completing the seminar and the final project,  finished high school, went to college and graduated with a degree in accounting. Her daughter is now a third grader who loves gymnastics and playing piano.

Not everyone can be an Alison or her daughter- they are both remarkable. But there are a lot of remarkable people out there, if you look for them, listen to them, and help them to advocate for themselves and their children. I know because I’ve worked with many of these young mothers.

When I asked Alison what she thought about the City’s ads, she said, “I would tell teens to wait! It’s not easy! I was in foster care and that gave me the supports I needed to get to college. But it’s hard. Teens need programs and people to help them.”

This is not to argue that teens should be in foster care if they are pregnant, but it does point out the benefits of supporting those in need of help  that their families can’t or won’t provide.

The City Administration for Children’s Services recently published a Guide to Working with Young Parents in Out of Home Care, created by members of the Fordham Interdisciplinary Parent Representation Project. This valuable resource and the programs it cites will hopefully move us in the direction of providing more supports tailored to the needs and goals of pregnant and parenting teens.

But for any of these resources, programs, or public service campaigns to be truly effective, we need in our own work at the practice and policy levels to continually go back to  young people themselves and pay attention to their opinions, voices and aspirations. We need to help them articulate their goals and support them in advocating for themselves.

Be open to young people – even those who may be having babies- as individuals who can break through stereotypes and predictability, and perhaps surprise us.

Betsy Krebs founded the Youth Advocacy Center, which closed its doors in 2012 after 20 years. The center helped youths involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems advocate for themselves

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