As reported by the Record-Journal, October 4, 2008.

New Programs Try to Counteract Meriden's High Teen Pregnancy Rate

By Jeffery Kurz

MERIDEN – Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's daughter, Britney Spears' sister, the fictional title character of the film "Juno."

All are recent high-profile examples of teenage pregnancy. And none are typical, says Jane Palley, director of the family planning program at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

More typical are young women who are experiencing the social, economic and health problems associated with poverty.

"It just affects so many different areas of life," she said.

Palley spearheads the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, a state Department of Social Services program that aims to reduce births by teen mothers in Connecticut, particularly in municipalities with the highest rates.

Meriden is among a dozen communities that consistently rank higher than the state average when it comes to teen pregnancy. Because births by teen mothers are closely connected with reduced economic and educational opportunities for women, and risks for their children, the stakes are considered high.

After a decade-long downward trend, 2006 saw a rise in the national teen birth rate. That year, the overall birth rate for 15- to 19-year olds was 41.9 births per 1,000 women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the exception of 2003, teen births in Meriden have been more than 10 percent above the state average each year so far this decade.

Two relatively new programs in the city are attempting to counteract the high rate of teen births in Meriden, or trying to help young mothers with their pregnancies and, later, with taking care of their children.

At the Community Health Center, which offers pre-natal care, a group program that started in July allows young expecting mothers the opportunity to share experiences and concerns and gives them the health care they need. There are now two groups in the midst of 10-week sessions under the program, which is funded by a grant from the March of Dimes.

State funding under the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative is allowing Meriden's youth services division to educate middle school youngsters about the dangers of risky behavior, including the behavior that leads to teen pregnancy.

The Community Health Center program, called Centering Pregnancy, has proven effective in reducing pre-term births, said Jan Weingrad Smith, a nurse midwife and the center's director of pre-natal care. Also reduced are instances of post-partum depression "because of the bonding women experience," Weingrad Smith said.

"It's the cutting edge of strategies to provide pre-natal care," said Weingrad Smith.

Of approximately 1,100 births at MidState Medical Center each year, about 300 involve families that turn to the Community Health Center for assistance. Nearly all are at or below the federal poverty level. About 20 percent are undocumented, and uninsured.

"I'm amazed at the level of stress in the community that these women function with," said Weingrad Smith. "There is a lot of stress, there's a lot of poverty. It's challenging for these women. We try to provide them with the tools to help them make positive decisions."

Clients are charged on a sliding scale, based on ability to pay determined by federal guidelines for community health centers like the one in Meriden. "So this is not a free clinic," said Weingrad Smith.

After a recent session, the young women in one of Weingrad Smith's groups gathered to talk about their experiences.

At 20, Samantha Ryan is pregnant with her second child. Ryan became pregnant with her three-year old daughter, Semaja, when she was 16 and gave birth four days after her 17th birthday.

Ryan had a three-year relationship with Semaja's father, a relationship now ended, before she became pregnant. She was using the birth control pill for a while, she said, but stopped.

"I didn't plan to get pregnant," she said.

And when it happened, "I was scared," Ryan said. "I didn't know what was going to happen because it was my first child."

Ryan dropped out of Maloney High School, and is now working toward her high school equivalency degree. She says she has support from her parents and sisters.

Ryan said that after she had her baby "most of my friends got pregnant." Asked what she meant by most, she started counting fingers and did not stop until she'd completed a handful.

"It's not just Meriden," she said. "It's everywhere."

Yanira Zenon, also pregnant with her second child, gave birth to her 5-year-old daughter, Yohaiza, when she was 17.

After a two-year relationship, the father broke up with her when she was five months pregnant and left the country, Zenon said.

Though she was "surprised" when she became pregnant, "I knew it was going to happen because I wasn't using any birth control," she said.

"I didn't think of the consequences," she said.

Before she became pregnant, Zenon had planned to go to college. Though that plan was delayed, she earned an associate's degree in human services from Middlesex Community College. It took twice as long, four years, to do it. She says she tells others they can accomplish such things as well, even though "it wasn't easy."

Among those in the group, most had not considered the consequences of pregnancy beforehand.

"Nobody thinks about it until afterward," said Rosemary Rivera, who at 20 is pregnant with her first child.

At the Community Health Center, young mothers are also strongly encouraged to consider breastfeeding because of the health benefits for both mother and child.

Among those who have taken the encouragement to heart is Arlette Borralles, a 19-year-old whose son, Frankie, is now a month and a half old.

Borralles came to Meriden from Mexico about a year and a half ago to be with her mother. She works as a planter for a local greenhouse and farm and became involved with her son's father, who works in landscaping and is from the same town in Mexico.

One day she would like to work as an airline stewardess, said Borralles, but said she's putting off such plans for herself until her son is much older. She had also planned to take classes in English, but the commitment to her baby has left little time other than to try to learn on her own. Her comments were translated by Evelyn Reyes, an administrative assistant in the Centering Pregnancy program.

Borralles' mother was also a teenage mother, with her sister, she said. With no health insurance, Borralles said the program at the center has helped her a lot.

There are many factors at play when it comes to teen pregnancy, but very high on the list of root causes is poverty, said the UConn Health Center's Palley.

Those who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances are less inclined to see the future as one of opportunity, she said.

"If you have a kid who doesn't feel they have a future to protect they're not going to be motivated," she said.

Other root causes, according to Palley, include having been the child of teenage parents, having been the victim of childhood sexual abuse or otherwise having grown up in a dysfunctional family.

Meriden's Community Health Center runs another program, called the Nurturing Families Network, open to any first-time parents. The program, funded by the Children's Trust Fund, offers weekly education and parenting help in the home, starting before birth and continuing until the child reaches age five. Consultation is also done on the telephone.

"We tell clients that being a parent is the hardest job you'll ever do," said Kimberly Marino, the program manager. Part of the program's aim is to reduce instances of child abuse and neglect.

The Nurturing Families Network now serves 45 families in Meriden and Wallingford. Most are single mothers, said Marino, and 32 are teenagers.

"The majority are young and single," she said.

And the challenges facing them are daunting, Marino said.

"Do they have support, education, transportation, day-care, employment? The answer is no" she said.

"How do you go to work if you don't have day care or transportation? It's that cycle," she said. "If you don't have A and B, how do you get to C?"

Young single mothers are also dealing with exhaustion and, often, post-partum depression, Marino said. "They're dealing with everything."

A year ago, funding from a three-year state grant that provides $60,000 each year enabled the city's Division of Youth Services to start a program which educates middle school youngsters about risky behavior. Similar programs are run throughout the state where rates of births by teens are above the state average.

In Meriden the program is called Achieve, which stands for adolescents caring about health, image, education, volunteerism and esteem.

Achieve starts working with children in the 7th grade. Meriden's approach is based on a 1994 program developed specifically for black and Hispanic youth living in urban areas, at two middle schools in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Denise Keating, manager of the city's youth services division, said she selected the approach because of its emphasis on community service work. Participants do office work, for example, or participate in the city summer youth employment program.

"It helps them learn the responsibility of committing to something," said Stacey Sanchez.

Thanks to the state grant, the city was able to hire the 28-year-old Sanchez to run the program. Raised in Meriden, the bilingual Sanchez is a 1998 graduate of Wilcox Technical High School.

"She's a great role model for the kids," said Beth Vumbaco, director of Meriden's Department of Health and Human Services.

"She knows Meriden," said Vumbaco. "She knows the city."

Participation in the Achieve program is voluntary and done in consultation with parents. Last year, the program started with 23 seventh graders, including both boys and girls, from all three of the city's middle schools. While that group is continuing to meet, another is starting up this year. The program is looking for more participants.

"Seventh grade is a great prevention age," said Keating. "The parents are looking for guidance to help them."

For 35 weeks, Sanchez meets with the groups once a week, in a large conference room where the discussion is meant to be free flowing. The idea is to let the concerns of the youngsters come to the surface. Topics can range from how a day at school went, to bullying.

"It's a participation," said Sanchez. "I know where I want to go and I steer them, but they're the ones leading it."

Sanchez says the youngsters are surprised when she brings up the subject of high teen pregnancy rates. Guest speakers have included a teenage mother.

She also discusses the costs involved with raising a child, "and if you are a teen mom, and cannot work, where do you get all this?"

"It takes them by surprise how much," she said. "I let them know, I'm very up front with the kids."

Though it's just starting the second year, both Keating and Sanchez say the program is well worth the effort. In her 15 years with the youth services division, it's the first time she's been able to take advantage of a state grant of this type, said Keating, who added that the city has always worked to provide similar services. "We are grateful for the support," she said.

"Meriden has been doing a really good job of getting the program off the ground," said Palley.

The Web site of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program notes that states are increasingly turning away from federal funds for abstinence-based programs, supported by the Bush administration, in favor of programs that take a broader approach.

A 2007 study by the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy concluded that programs that focus exclusively on abstinence do not change teen sexual behavior.

"There has been rigorous evaluation nationally of the abstinence-only programs and they have really been proven not to be effective," said Palley.

While abstinence may be a preferred ideal, programs that seek to reduce teen pregnancy must be prepared to deal with what's actually going on "and give kids the skills they need to not get pregnant and protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases," Palley said.

"If you're looking at limited resources, our feeling is they should be in programs that have proven to be effective," she said.

More information about the Community Health Center is available at 203-237-2229 or on the Web, at www.chc1.com

Meriden's Youth Services Division can be reached at 203-630-4225.

The Connecticut Teen Pregnancy Prevention Web site is at teenpregnancy-ct.org.