Reported pregnancies in teenagers have declined steadily since their national high in the late 1980s, but after several years of steady birth rates, officials in Gilroy are bracing for a disappointing increase in pregnancy rates.
In 2001 and 2002, birth rates for teens ages 13 to 19 in the 95020 zip code held steady at 72 per year, but the number this year is projected to hit 85 if births continue at the current rate, according to Susie Law, coordinator of the California Student and Family Education program for Gilroy Unified School District.
San Benito County had 86 births by teens ages 15 to 19 last year, and hit a three-year high with 93 teen births in 2002, according to statistics provided by the San Benito Public Health Services Department.
It should be noted, however, that in both cases, women who are technically not minors – those 18 and over – are counted in such statistics, according to Catherine Farnham, perinatal services coordinator for the department, and they form about 70 percent of these statistics.
There are no projected numbers available for San Benito County teen birth rates, but of the 212 pregnancy tests Compassion Pregnancy Services in Hollister has distributed to teens this year, 54 have come back positive, said Client Services Director Ann Roberson. Specific numbers were not available for Morgan Hill at the time of publication.
In Gilroy, CalSAFE offers pregnant and parenting teens help with nearly every aspect of the process, including nutrition, child care and access to medical, financial, vocational and counseling assistance, but they cannot do anything about prevention, said Law.
"I am concerned about the rise again because our district does not have any kind of real prevention system in place," said Law, pulling a thick health text book from one of the cupboards above her desk and leafing through its pages. "There used to be a required health education and driver's education class. Now it's only through summer school and it's not required. Health … it's a one-day thing during the year."
Law snaps the thick, red book closed with a muffled slap and peers into the daycare room of the Mt. Madonna High School Child Care Center, where a young, pregnant girl in a nursing bib and sweatshirt tends to the baby beginning to fuss in a corner crib. She's earning extra credits toward graduation by learning proper and effective child care techniques, and she's on her way to a diploma.
"The reasons why a girl is at risk vary," she said. "Some of them lack basic knowledge about reproductive health, and sometimes it's social or emotional pressure. What's sad is you have a teen parent – and I've had some young ones – who doesn't understand how they got pregnant."
Like other experts in the field, Law is reticent to say there is a risk profile for teens who will become pregnant, but there are a few commonalties among the majority of teen moms.
Two out of every three women who give birth at age 19 or under are Hispanic, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, and, though poor and low-income teens make up only 40 percent of the total teen population, they encompass some 83 percent of teen parents.
Also, teen parents are twice as likely to have been sexually abused as children according to the June 2003 study "Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing in California," a publication of the California State Library Foundation.
Many teen moms report that they do not know the birth father of their child, said Marianne Marafino, a licensed clinical social worker who directs the site and program management for Community Solutions in Morgan Hill and Gilroy, but these responses often fail to tell the real story.
Girls may say they don't know a father, not because it's the truth, but because they do not want to reveal the birth father's name for a variety of reasons – fear that he'll be jailed, fear that he'll be a bad influence on the child or a variety of other personal reasons.
In reality, one in four teen pregnancies meet the criteria for statutory rape. Most fathers of children born to teenage mothers are four or more years older than their partners, and the majority are over age 21, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Only one in five of these fathers will marry the mother, and also only one in five will provide the mother with any form of financial support, according to the Library Foundation study.
Instead, the state steps in to fill the void in these situations. In year 2000 dollars, the annual net costs to California taxpayers for babies born to teen mothers were estimated to be $1.5 billion in state-funded health care, formula programs, financial assistance and program costs.
The social costs from lost wages and lost productivity were estimated at a much higher $3.3 billion, according to the Public Health Institute study "No Time For Complacency: Teen Births in California."
Unless trends change, the state's Department of Finance conservatively projects a 23 percent rise in annual teen births by 2008, leading to a birth increase of 12,500 children between 2003 and 2008.
In San Benito County, formerly the state leader in teen pregnancies, a semester-long class in health is now taught in the ninth grade to discourage these problems, but the district has put plans to apply for CalSAFE grant funding on the back burner as it adjusts to changes in its administrative structure.
San Benito High School Principal Debbie Padilla was under the impression that the district's new director of curriculum was working on the grant application.
The new curriculum director, Maryann Boylan, has only held the post for 14 days and said she was not working on the grant yet, but expected to do so with school superintendent Jean Burns Slater.
For students who do become pregnant, Title IX, which is best known for its articulation of equality in sports, also guarantees students the right to stay at their school.
In Gilroy, the CalSAFE program operates in any school a pregnant or parenting mother or father chooses to attend, and as many as 90 percent of the teens who enter the program graduate from high school.
They're propelled both by the services available to them and motivated by the desire to achieve in order to be able to support their children. But when you're 16 and nursing, nothing seems to come easy.
Seventy percent of teen mothers drop out of school when they become pregnant or shortly after they give birth, according to the June 2003 study "Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing in California." Just under a third of them will return and complete their high school education before the age of 30.
Beyond education, teens face additional stressors when it comes to delivering a baby. Not only are they woefully under-prepared for the financial obligation that comes along with the birth, but many of them lack self-worth and feel shame compounded by the pain of social judgment, said Marafino.
"They haven't had the opportunity in their life to get out of their home and meet people of all different cultures or learn different styles of parenting," she said. "Also, the financial stressors impact the psychological side, so lack of daycare, lack of employment opportunities and other costs can be added stressors."
Marafino has also noticed an upward spike in drug and alcohol abuse as well as smoking among teenage patients.
These behaviors can compound the already increased health issues teen mothers face, according to statistics provided by the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the California Department of Health Services.
The group is far more likely to receive either adequate healthcare from the first trimester or none at all, rather than receiving a mid-range of services.
For those who do seek care, Mt. Madonna Continuation High School in Gilroy has a mobile clinic stop by campus twice a month, and St. Louise Regional Hospital offers prenatal classes, including those on breast feeding, child care and birth, to teens free of charge.
Most teens who do keep their children stay at home, and are the children of parents who are either single parents or still in the workforce, but Marafino does see one positive trend in the living situation of pregnant and parenting teens.
She's noticed a greater number of grandparents stepping in to fill long-term care roles, supporting their children with the aid of housing, child care and other services rendered within the family rather than kicking them out of the home, a practice that was still common just a decade ago.
Officials from the Morgan Hill Unified School District did not return phone calls in time to comment on this story.