LOS ANGELES (AP) — When Erika Perez got pregnant at 16, she didn’t know what contraception meant or how tough it would be to raise a child as a teenager.
Two years later, the Montebello teen is thankful a state-funded program that aims to curb multiple teen births is helping her succeed as a parent and a student.
“Everybody turned, like, their backs on me because everybody was so disappointed,” Perez said of her family’s reaction to her pregnancy. “Once you’re in this program, once you’ve had a baby, they talk to you about contraception, to not repeat the same story, especially at such a young age.”
The Adolescent Family Life Program that helped Perez and others like it are being credited, in part, with helping slow the rate of teen births in California to an all-time low, which reflects a national record low.
“If you can prevent a second pregnancy from occurring within two years of the first, the likelihood of a mother finishing high school is much better,” said Catherine Camacho, deputy director of the state public health department’s Center for Family Health.
State health officials attribute the decline to better use of contraception among boys and girls, more teens delaying first sexual experiences and local programs that target teens by age, ethnicity, race and income levels.
For example, the Central Valley’s teen population is older, on average, than in Los Angeles, so health officials in Fresno and Madera typically provide more contraception and safe sex education aimed at older kids. In Los Angeles, the focus is more on abstinence for younger kids, said Laurie Weaver, who heads the Office of Family Planning.
Through home visits, parenting and career workshops, and monitoring by a case manager at Alta Med Youth Services, Perez graduated from high school on time and is now a full-time college student who hopes to become a social worker. But it hasn’t been easy.
“There was a point with high school where I wanted to stop,” she said. “It was hard: when you’re a mom and you have all these responsibilities and having extra, like, studying and stuff like that, you want to stop. But this program pushes you.”
Her caseworker kept Perez on task with school work, and arranged for childcare for her son, Nathan Kobe, so the teen mom had time to study. The state uses $8.4 million of federal grant money annually to operate the program.
Los Angeles County has the highest number of births to teenagers in the state, with 13,146 in 2009, the most recent year statistics were available. But the number has consistently fallen, from 14,733 in 2007. The drop reflects a broader drop in teen births across the state, down to 47,811 in 2009 from 53,393 in 2007.
The state’s teen birth rate of 32.1 per 1,000 females in 2009, age 15 to 19, is half of what it was 1991 when the figure peaked at 70.9 and less than the national rate of 41.5.
Public debate on sexual education in schools has grown heated over the years, but it is effective to empower students to make smart choices, said Camacho, noting that California is the only state that has consistently not taken federal abstinence-only funding.
That doesn’t mean students aren’t taught about abstinence in California, only that the state didn’t agree to take money for making it its sole approach. Abstinence is typically a focus for health education in younger teens, and older students are given information on how to prevent pregnancy if they become sexually active, said Weaver.
Latinas make up the vast majority of teen moms, with 72.9 percent of such births. Most of those mothers, 71 percent, are born in the U.S.
In part, that may be because Latinas tend to be less likely to have abortions and it seems more accepted in Hispanic cultures to have the child, according to county health chief Dr. Jonathan Fielding.
That wasn’t the case for Perez. She was shunned by her parents and ran away from home before the birth of her son, who is now 16 months old. Her father didn’t speak to her for months. But now that her life is more settled, their relationship has been mended — and she recognizes how much she’s had to grow up to make that happen.
“When I was younger, with no kid, (my days had more) chitty-chat, having friends around, talking and talking,” said Perez. “Right now my main focus is to get through college, get my bachelor’s degree, become a social worker and become a great mom — that’s all I have on my mind right now.”
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