Teen pregnancy in D.C.: Treating the aftermath, not the causes

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Imagine reading that dozens of girls attending the National Cathedral School are pregnant or are raising children. That kind of news would be considered shocking and probably serve as the basis for declaring a state of emergency in our nation's capital. Not so, however, when news of that nature is confined to the D.C. public school system.

There are two District senior high schools east of the U.S. Capitol where the number of pregnant or parenting teens is "in the range of 80 at each of the two schools," I was told by a city health provider who asked for anonymity.

And the city's response? A deafening silence. It's not because no one knows about the situation. Certainly some of the students attending those schools know about their classmates' condition. So, perhaps, do some teachers, principals and school nurses. The parents or guardians of those girls know. So, too, the boyfriends and hospital emergency rooms.

But the official response is muted. Maybe it's because city officials really don't know the full extent of the teen-pregnancy problem.

The city health department reported 1,083 D.C. females ages 15 to 19 who gave birth in 2008. Are those girls still in school? Did any of them graduate high school? What about their children? Does anyone know? Or care?

How about girls in the city 15 and under who are having babies? Twenty-three girls 15 and under gave birth in 2005, 24 each in 2006 and 2007, and 32 in 2008, the last year for which such statistics are available. Some of those babies having babies probably had not reached high school.

Oh, but we know other parts of story. Many of these girls who have children don't finish school. Neither do the fathers of their babies. Many of the girls end up on the welfare rolls with second babies on the way.

So the school system is doing the right thing when it sponsors a program to help pregnant and parenting teens stay in school while raising a child. The need for an education, health care, counseling and other services doesn't end with the birth of the child. That's when the challenges of child-rearing begin.

But there's still something wrong with this picture. Beyond not knowing precisely what we have on our hands, we seem to be equally befuddled about how to address it.

That confusion was on display during a meeting with Mayor Vince Gray last week. I mentioned recent columns on D.C. teen pregnancy and asked his thoughts. Gray touted his early childhood education and universal pre-K initiative as an excellent way to reach teen mothers. As they see the success of the children, Gray said, the teens will also learn the benefits of keeping up in school, building a career and delaying child-rearing. But, he added, "That still doesn't stop the first pregnancy."

And that's just it.

The thrust of what we are doing is aimed at helping pregnant and parenting students succeed. Of course we must. The federal Title IX law protects students from being discriminated against because of pregnancy, marital status, having a child or having had an abortion. Schools must, according to the law, provide these girls with the same access to school and to extracurricular activities as they would offer anyone else.

But how about spending time and energy on the prevention of teen pregnancy? Time was, girls got pregnant because contraception was ineffective or not used. They didn't want to get pregnant. Today, we have a different phenomenon on our hands.

Some of the girls want to get pregnant, health providers and teen-pregnancy experts have told me.

Chalk up the desire to have a baby to low self-esteem and a wish to make the boyfriend happy. Or to the belief that they will be happy if they have a baby. Or to the chance to gain standing among girlfriends who have also had babies. Or to the failure to fully understand the negative consequences of having a child during adolescence. Or to poor parental supervision. Or to all of the above.

The fact is that the direction, support and strong parental connections necessary to help girls navigate their teens are missing.

That is what's needed most of all. And in this city, that's what is in short supply.

kingc@washpost.com


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