The spate of violence this year caused some official hand-wringing about conditions in Hartford, but there was little discussion of one of the city's most damaging pathologies: teen pregnancy.
It is true that the rate of unplanned teen pregnancy has fallen significantly, both here and across the country. Perhaps city leaders believe the problem is under control. It isn't. The numbers, although clearly better, are still too high. This is no time for complacency.
Nationally, the percentage of unmarried girls getting pregnant began falling in the early 1990s, dropping 27 percent from 1990 to 2000. Hartford had 727 births to teens in 1994, enough to fill a mid-sized school. The 727 newborns made up 28.3 percent of all births in the city, one of the highest percentages in the country.
That year, an initiative called Breaking the Cycle, a collaboration of the city, the schools and the Hartford Action Plan on Infant Health, was formed to reduce teen pregnancy. The campaign, working with school, health and other youth service officials, has focused on early intervention, comprehensive health education, access to reproductive health services and long-term programming for girls and boys.
The results have been impressive. Live births to teenagers dropped steadily to 406 in 2003, but then crept up slightly to 428 in 2004, the last year for which statistics are available. Births to girls under the age of 15 fell from 29 in 1994 to six in 2002, but went up to 12 in 2004.
Although the progress is heartening and undeniable, the work is far from over. Breaking the Cycle is working with clergy as well as leaders of the Latino community, where the numbers remain stubbornly high, and is focusing more on middle-school education to get the message to young kids, said spokeswoman Laura Stone.
This effort must receive strong community support. The Wall Street Journal recently compared two rural South Carolina counties, one with a broad and intensive array of pregnancy prevention programs and one with minimal programs. The latter, Allendale County, has a teen pregnancy rate 2.6 times higher than the former, Bamberg County.
Experts aren't unanimous on why teen pregnancy numbers have dropped so sharply. They cite such things as teens being better informed, tougher welfare and child support laws, and a tougher job market, which requires that teens get a better education. But experts are pretty clear on the harm that unplanned pregnancy can bring to young, unprepared moms, their children and the community.
Only a third of teen mothers finish high school. Their children face serious health, economic and social problems. The children often aren't fed properly or read to, and so aren't prepared for school. Hartford teachers tell of kindergartners who can't count or identify colors - and some who don't know their last names. These youngsters will have great difficulty catching up, and many will end up on the streets. In addition to the incalculable personal damage, this tragedy costs a fortune. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy estimates that if the teenagers who got pregnant in one year waited until they were 20, the country would save nearly $50 billion.
The issue must stay on the front burner.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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