Not so fast with patting ourselves on the back over the recent news that Connecticut's teen birth rates are the fourth-lowest in the nation.
The truth is that a lot of what was done to help lower those numbers has become a casualty of budget cuts or a change of focus. So chances are pretty good that those numbers are going to get worse.
In fact, we've got a way to go before there's real cause for celebration. Consider this sobering stat: The birth rate in Connecticut's capital city is nearly three times the state average.
It's so high that, at 72.6 babies per 1,000 teens aged 15-19, Hartford has a higher teen birth rate than all 50 states.
"We can't sugarcoat that," said Ruth Goldbaum, the nurse practitioner at Hartford Public High School's health clinic.
No, we can't. And while Hartford schools have seen positive pregnancy tests decrease in the past three years, an increasing de-emphasis in health education almost guarantees they won't stay that way.
There aren't enough nurse-practitioners to cover the five school-based health clinics full time. Where there once was a health education coordinator, a mental health manager and a dental manager, there isn't any more. And the clinic manager who took over a lot of those duties, plus her own, just left.
In a fact sheet from the Hartford Action Plan on Infant Health, the reality is succinctly laid out: "Hartford children receive less health and sex education in school today than they did five years ago."
And then there are the collaborative teen pregnancy prevention programs that have been whittled down, if not straight out whacked, by a lack of funds. Among them, HAP's Breaking the Cycle campaign and its Postponing Sexual Involvement program.
For years, the program trained students from each of the city's three high schools to educate fifth-graders about resisting pressures to become sexually active. But now only Bulkeley High still runs a PSI program, and a watered-down one at that because of a lack of money.
"I could confidently say that four or five years ago, we were reaching every fifth-grader in the city," said HAP Executive Director Regina Roundtree. "I can't say that anymore."
Like many, Roundtree was pleased to hear of Connecticut's low birth rates. But she also knows better than to celebrate.
When she looks ahead, what she fears, and frankly what we all should fear, is the impact these changes will have on a generation of children who haven't received consistent, comprehensive health education.
Hartford schools have often been slammed for focusing more on social services than academics. It's a fair criticism, to a point. But the reality is that these are city schools where students and their families often have little or no access to health care, never mind sex education.
The good news is that Hartford recently received three sizable grants to study and help combat teen pregnancy, including a $4.5 million federal grant to Hartford's health and human services department for pregnancy prevention programs.
Wonderful. But unless we strike a balance between social studies and sex, any celebration is always going to be short-lived.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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