A seventh-grader in stretch pants and high-top tennies, her swollen midsection hidden by a roomy overblouse, took her place in a classroom circle at McAlister School in Pacoima, an optional public school for pregnant girls. She suppressed a giggle as discussion leader Gilda Mathews explained the custom of chaperoned-only dates in her native Puerto Rico.
Another girl, incredulous, asked, "Did your date have to take someone along, too?"
No, Mathews said, smiling and smoothly leading the group into a discussion of pregnancy and what it means in terms of changing relationships and changing responsibilities.
Mathews is a clinical social worker with El Nido Services, a nonprofit child and youth counseling agency that has recently received a $311,000 state grant in support of its Adolescent Family Life Project, which coordinates a network of free services for pregnant teen-agers and teen-age parents.
One of these services is counseling sessions at McAlister and at Thomas Riley School; this academic year 1,200 pregnant Los Angeles Unified School District students have chosen, on a voluntary basis, to continue their education at one of these schools while awaiting birth of their babies.
On a recent Wednesday morning at McAlister, some of these girls talked candidly about their babies' fathers--most of them no longer had ongoing relationships--and about abortion--only one girl in this group of 13 had even considered it briefly--and about their changing bodies. Asked how pregnancy had made things different, one girl replied, "No more jeans!"
But they expressed, too, hurtful experiences--abandonment by old friends who no longer considered them suitable party companions, conflicts with their parents. "My father's confused," said Cathy, 13. "One minute he wants it (the baby). The next minute he doesn't want anything to do with it. Every time he talks about adoption I just leave the room. He's taking it out on my mother" for not insisting on an abortion when there was still time.
It is apparent as these teen-age mothers-to-be talk that, for the most part, they have given little or no thought to tomorrow, just as they appear to have given little thought to yesterday, to the possibility that a sexual relationship could lead to pregnancy.
Liz, a 10th-grader, shrugged and said, "I don't mind having a baby. I like kids."
Only five girls of the 13 had ever used birth control. Liza said she'd had some pills but "my mother found them and threw them out."
Marriage Not Expected
They are rather casual about pregnancy--no, they would not choose not to be pregnant. And, no, they do not expect, nor do they want, to marry their babies' fathers. Camilla, a sophomore, said, "I tell him it isn't his baby so he won't call." Her boyfriend would want to be involved, another girl said, but "he's in jail."
For most girls, counselor Mathews said, "There's very little awareness of the responsibility--and the consequences. Their mothers become the mothers. And they keep on doing what they're doing."
A 1984-85 profile of clients in El Nido's teen-age parent programs--the original program serving South Central Los Angeles and the newer San Fernando Valley program--shows that the majority of pregnant clients were 16 or younger, reflecting a downward trend from the previous year. However, only 9% of the fathers were 16 or under and most were between 17 and 20.
Almost 70% of the girls lived with their single mothers while pregnant and, both during pregnancy and after the birth of their babies, their parents, welfare and the baby's father were their primary sources of financial support, with welfare the number one source after birth of the baby.
There are two ways in which teen-age parents may receive public assistance under Aid to Families With Dependent Children. If their own parents are receiving aid, the new baby may be added. If the teen parent(s) and baby are living on their own, they may qualify as needy caretakers. The young parents may also be eligible for WIC (Women, Infants and Children), a federal nutrition program, and for food stamps.
(By county Department of Public Social Services criteria, for example, the needy parent plus one child receives $474 a month, a needy parent plus two children, $587.)
Teen-Age Birth Statistics
That there is a need for a comprehensive services program for teen-age parents is borne out by statistics for 1984 (the most recent available) from the county. In that year there were 360 live births to girls under 15 and 16, 704 live births to girls between 15 and 19. (In California, 53,000 babies are born each year to teen-agers.) According to El Nido, Los Angeles County has the second highest U.S. metropolitan area rate of fertility for girls in the latter age group, a rate that translates to about 68 births per 1,000 population. (Only Houston is higher.)
The highest fertility rates are for blacks and Latinos, the two major target groups of the El Nido program.