Every morning, with her backpack hanging from shoulders, 18-year-old Sharon gets on the school bus. She holds the baby seat carrying Brigitte, her six-month-old daughter, in both hands. The baby is with her during her schooldays at Miami’s COPE Center North, a high school for teen mothers and their children or soon-to-be mothers.
“Nobody in my family talked to me about how to use a condom if I had a boyfriend,” recalls Sharon. In seventh grade, they told to her “only about parts of men and women’s bodies, but not how to be careful and avoid teenage pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. When the childbirth pains began I was frightened, but I was also happy: I wanted to see her right then and there.”
Sharon fled from the violence in her native Honduras at the age of 13. She took the risk of crossing the US border on foot for two reasons: “Because of the gangs that knew that my family was living abroad and we didn’t dare let them see us [my brother and me] wearing nice clothes, not even new shoes,” and because she missed her parents.
After entering the United States, she was detained. “I don’t remember where it was, I only know I had already crossed over.” She spent three months at a detention center in Texas and then traveled to Miami to meet up with her family, whom she hadn’t seen for quite some time.
“I left my country at age 13 and arrived in Miami just as I was about to turn 14, I had a month to go.”
A short time later, Sharon met a boy and they began dating. She he became pregnant and became a mother at age 17.
“He told me he was going to help me, and that he was going to give the baby his name. But he never sent me anything. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t even ask about her.”
“We’re still friends on Facebook though.”
“I started to skip school, and my belly started to grow. I felt alone, everything made me angry, and I would sit down and cry. I only left the house only when I had a doctor’s appointment. I felt ashamed. I would take the bus, but even then people would stare at me as if I were weird,” Sharon tells two young female Hispanic friends over lunch in the cafeteria.
Sharon enrolled at this school, which offers the program known as Continuing Opportunities for a Purposeful Education, when her daughter was three months old. According to their website, the goal of these education centers is to meet the educational, social and medical needs of mothers and their children. While the young women study, their babies are taken care of by professionals at no cost.
Sharon remembers that on the first day of classes she was taught that babies were to be given food according to a schedule. They told her what supplies she had to bring (diapers, infant bottles, clothing, toys) and they explained the care Brigitte would be receiving. Whenever she had to breastfeed, she had permission to leave the classroom. “Sometimes the school lends me a car seat for the bus ride and if the baby gets sick, or if she has insect bites, the people taking care of her let me know so that I will give her the medications she needs.”
Of the students attending COPE North, 52% are African-American, 45% are Hispanic and 3% are white. This can clearly be appreciated in places such as the school cafeteria, where Brigitte usually gets together with her friends at lunchtime.
“I spent a year away from my studies. I didn’t know this school existed. Wouldn’t you think that outside it would say ‘school for young pregnant mothers’?” she asks them. “My previous school recommended it,” says one of the other girls. “They told me there was another choice if I didn’t want to stay there. At that high school, there are a lot stairs, and people look at you different. Aside from the weight I gained and the big belly, there are too many kids there and the teachers avoid you. They don’t understand you. Here they do.”
As soon as she is finished eating, Sharon runs to see her daughter. In the colorful nursery full of cribs and toys, Miss López and Miss Lazare each take care of three babies. On the wall there’s a bulletin board with the title, “Mommy and Me” along with photos of students and their children; a poster informing them that only 10 minutes of bonding time is allowed, and another poster that says: “Life means making mistakes and learning from those mistakes.”
Brigitte becomes excited when she sees her mother. They hug each other and play. Ten minutes later, Sharon diverts the baby´s attention so that she can leave and head back to the classroom.
Sharon is still struggling to assimilate the English language. “They put me back two years when I arrived. At first I learned a lot of English, but when my parents separated, I no longer cared [to learn it further]. Now I’m going to graduate when I’m 21.” She spends the entire day at school with her daughter, and in the afternoon, she takes the bus to go home where she lives with her father and her brother. “As soon as I get there, if it’s my turn to cook. Then I clean things up and go to bed. Every day is the same. I spend time with my daughter 24/7.”
“Whenever I go down the street and see other young women my age, I wonder whether I would be like them if I had prevented this. I’d be in 12th grade and wouldn’t have been left behind. It would have made it easier for me to cook and keep house. I wouldn’t feel so out of place going out alone. I can’t do many things I used to do. It takes up too much of my time. Now it’s normal for me to leave everything half done.”
Aida, a native of Nicaragua, was 16 years old and six months pregnant when she began attending COPE Center North. “When Lea [her daughter] was in my womb, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do as a mother. I didn’t know how to change diapers,” she recalls as she walks along the school’s hallways. At COPE, they taught her how to breastfeed, what childbirth was like, and explained how to take care of her child. “When my daughter was born, all my fear went away,” she says.
While she was still quite young, Aida boarded an airplane to the United States with her mother. At 13, she met a boyfriend who enticed her into smoking crack. After two overdoses, she discovered she was pregnant. “I went for a checkup to see if I had some kind of venereal disease or HIV, and there they told me I was pregnant. I’ve lived in the fast lane. It’s like, I’ve been there, done that.”
As soon as she received the news, she got away from the street scene, dropped her boyfriend, and found help at this school. The rest of her family is in Nicaragua and her mother doesn’t have many friends here. “But in my neighborhood everyone is Nicaraguan, which means people talk. When I graduate and step out of my house wearing cap and gown I’m going to feel powerful.”
Aida makes reference to the gossip because she knows it will continue now that she’s pregnant for the second time. “After Lea, I really didn’t think I was going to have another baby. But everything has its consequences and you have to assume responsibility. This baby’s father is with me and I know he isn’t into any kind of trouble. Things will turn our different,” hopes the now 18-year-old woman, who assures us that she never thought of having an abortion. “I think it’s cowardly, the easy way out.” She feels safe at this school and doesn’t feel singled out. “All of us are in the same situation, no one can judge.”
Students who attend this and other high schools offering COPE or TAPP (Teen Adolescent pregnancy and Parenting Program) programs are allowed to stay until they graduate. They may enroll from the moment they are a few months pregnant, at any time during the school year, and up until the time their children reach the age of 4. COPE Center North has an average enrollment of 150 students and 108 babies, and has capacity for 300 enrollees; classes have anywhere between 10 and 25 students and attendance hovers around 70% and 89%.
In the United States, there are many schools offering COPE (Continuing Opportunities for a Purposeful Education) or TAPP (Teen Adolescent pregnancy and Parenting Program) programs for pregnant teens or those recently had a baby and wish to continue their education.
In 2013, there were a total of 273,105 babies born to teenage mothers, including women younger than 20, and regardless of marital status. According to the National Vital Statistics Report, published in January of 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the birthrate between young women between the of ages 15 and 19 was 26.5 births for every 1,000. That is 10% lower than in 2012 and 57% lower than in 1991.
Data from the Guttmatcher Institute indicate that the main reason for this drop is increased use of contraceptives among young people. The numbers also show that they’re waiting much longer before having sexual relations: in 1995, 19% of females and 21% of the males became sexually active before they were 15. Between 2006 and 2008 these figures dropped to 11% and 14% respectively.
Even though the most recent figures show a significant drop in comparison with the previous 20 years, teen pregnancy rates in the United State continue to be among the highest in first world countries.
Nevertheless, there has been a disparity between different racial groups. There are still many barriers to overcome, especially when one focuses on the Hispanic community.
In 2013, the birthrate among Hispanic adolescent women between ages 15 and 19 was 42 births for every 1,000 young women, 10% less than in 2012 and 60% less than in 1991. Even so, this figure is significantly higher than the national rate and also exceeds the rate for adolescent women from other races: non-Hispanic African-American (39%), American Indian or Native Alaskan (31%), non-Hispanic whites (19%) and Asian or Pacific Islander (9%).
The National Campaign estimates that approximately one out of every four adolescent women in the United States becomes pregnant at least once before they reach age 20. Among Hispanic adolescent women the rate is one out of every three.
Adolescent pregnancy and motherhood bring about substantial social and economic costs that immediately impact parents and their children in the long run.
In 2010, The National Campaign analyzed the federal, state, and local public costs, passed on to US taxpayers as a result of the pregnancies of these adolescent women and their children. The estimated figure is $9.4 million.
Most of the costs of adolescent motherhood are associated with the negative consequences for the children, such as an increase in the costs of health care and parenting; the higher likelihood of growing up in a single-parent family and low performance in school, as well as the higher risk of being jailed during adolescence.
Furthermore, pregnancy and having to parent the children contribute largely to the school dropout rate among these girls. Only 50% of teen mothers receive their high school diploma before they’re age 22, compared with 90% for women who did not become mothers during their adolescence, as stated in the academic publication Diploma Attainment Among Teen Mothers (Child Trends)
Liany Arroyo, Director of Partnerships at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, states that among the main factors explaining the high birthrate among Hispanic adolescents, one finds the low socioeconomic and educational level, especially in the matter of sexuality, the absence of health insurance coverage, and the lack of access to contraceptives. But that’s not all.
“The language barrier and the fact that they are immigrants are two other barriers faced by the Hispanic community. Both explain some of the factors I mentioned previously.”
Another explanation lies in the reluctance of Latino families to talk about sex. “Parents don’t know what to say because their parents didn’t talk to them about the matter either. More than the cultural reason, the reason why they don’t talk to their children about it is that they don’t know much about the subject either. There is a lack of information and education among adolescents as well as among adolescents’ parents,” further explains Arroyo.
Dr. Lisa Romero, a researcher at the Division of Reproductive Health at the CDC, explains that birthrates among adolescents are higher in rural areas than in urban centers and that this geographical factor affects all adolescents regardless of race.
Romero agrees that lack of education, low family income, lack of opportunities for development in the community and segregation by neighborhood and socioeconomic level also contribute to the high incidence of the problem within the Hispanic community.
The lack of access to and use of reproductive health services is another determining factor. “Recent data from the National Survey of Family Growth point out the decrease in the use of reproductive health services among adolescent women, especially among those who are younger, Hispanic, and have a lower educational level and no health insurance coverage,” explains Romero.
But all is not doom and gloom. In order to find a solution to the problem of teen pregnancy that is sustainable over time, one has to take into account the favorable statistics. Current data show that the adolescent birthrate is now at its lowest level since 1990.
Romero, who has been working for years on prevention strategies, confirms that this is due to the fact that there are fewer sexually active adolescent women.
Another reason is that those who are already sexually active are using some method of birth control. Specifically, 43% of adolescent females between the ages of 15 and 19 have had sexual relations, and 4 out of every 5 adolescents used contraceptives the last time they had sexual relations.
The detail lies in the fact that less than 5% of adolescents use the more effective methods. Most adolescents use contraceptive pills and condoms, which, if not used correctly and systematically, are less effective for preventing pregnancies.
“The use of intrauterine devices (IUD’s) and implants, also known as long-acting reversible contraception (LARC), are the most effective methods for preventing pregnancies among adolescents. They are easy to use and highly effective: less than 1% of those using them might become pregnant, while with the pill the probability is 9% and with condoms 18%,” explains Romero, who has a doctorate in public health from the University of California, Berkeley.
The IUD’s may last between three and 10 years, and the implants up to three years. Both must be inserted or implanted by a healthcare provider. They’re more expensive at the beginning, but cheaper in the long run. Romero points out that the cost of and access to IUD’s and to LARC should not be a reason for teen pregnancy, but rather a barrier that must be overcome in order to prevent it.
“Many adolescents know very little about LARC and erroneously believe they cannot use them because of their age. Information is scarce. They don’t know they’re safe and effective for young adults, nor how to implant them or remove them,” explains Romero.
Another bit of good news, according to Arroyo, is the fact that young adults identify their parents as the persons who have the greatest influence on their decisions about sex and personal relations. Even though there is a belief that adolescents will not listen, the fact is that they do. And they not only listen, but they follow their recommendations.
“Parents play an important role in the prevention of teen pregnancy and many do not realize that. There is always a lot of talk about ‘a discussion’, but the truth of the matter is that this has to do with something more than just one discussion. There are many discussions that should evolve as the child grows up. And not all are about sex, but also about values, such as a good relationship for couples, the importance of not rushing into things, abstention as a valid option and contraceptive methods, among other topics,” Arroyo finalizes.
Places such as COPE Center North in Miami, where Sharon and Aida – and hundreds of more Hispanic women – rebuild their lives and bring back their dreams, are invaluable. But the ideal thing would be not to need them. And, according to all of the experts, that is what a good education and a frank conversation would accomplish.