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National Prevention Project : Junior League Focuses on Teen-Age Pregnancy

May 01, 1987|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Teen-age pregnancy is not a minority problem, but successful solutions must include minority activists, the director of a national project to prevent adolescent pregnancies told the Junior League of Orange County, which is spearheading a coalition to adapt the project locally.

"You cannot lay an agenda on the community," said Julia Scott, executive director of the Child Watch project of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund. "It won't work for the Junior League person to go into the Mexican-American or black community saying, 'This is what you people should do,' "

Starting in 1984, the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit children's advocacy organization, now advises 60 community projects called Adolescent Child Watch Programs. Other national sponsors are the Assn. of Junior Leagues Inc., the National Council of Negro Women, the March of Dimes and the National Coalition of a Hundred Black Women.

Unwanted teen-age pregnancy is a "symptom and cause of child poverty," Scott told league members Wednesday, and prevention of the first pregnancy is the message of Child Watch. "We cannot wait until the damage is done. It costs too much in dollars and life experience," she said.

The project's next priorities are to prevent second pregnancies among teen-agers and to ensure adequate prenatal care to prevent prematurity, low birth weight and birth defects--common problems in babies born to teen-agers, she said.

Nationally, 550,000 children are born to girls 19 and younger each year. Teen-age pregnancy rates in general are declining, but rates are rising for those 15 and under, Scott said.

The most recent figures indicate that an estimated 5,918 adolescents age 19 and under became pregnant and that 2,902 gave birth in Orange County in 1984, according to the Coalition Concerned with Adolescent Pregnancy, a Santa Ana-based education and information project. In Orange County the percentage of babies born to teen-age mothers is 8.4% of the total births, lower than that of Los Angeles, 11.8%, and of the nation, 13.1%, according to CCAP figures.

While socioeconomic status and ethnicity have no bearing on the teen-age pregnancy rate, they are consistent predictors of the teen-age birth rate, said Cindy Scheinberg, CCAP executive director. Pregnant teen-agers from affluent areas are more likely to seek abortions, she said.

In Orange County, the teen-age birth rate is highest in Santa Ana, a city that is 57% Latino and where 38% of the population lives below the poverty level, she said. With 22.1 births per 1,000 teen-agers, the Santa Ana school district has the highest rate in the county, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Other cities with high adolescent birth rates are Garden Grove, Anaheim, Placentia, Fullerton, Huntington Beach, Westminster and La Habra, Scheinberg said.

The league breakfast meeting also drew a dozen potential Child Watch activists, representatives from the Orange County Department of Education, state Sen. Marian Bergeson's office, the California Community Foundation, the Orange County Substance Abuse Prevention Network and the Mexican American Women's National Assn.

Evelyn Colon Becktell, president of the Orange County chapter of the Mexican American Women's National Assn., an organization of 33 professional Latina women, said she expects her organization to become a core member of Child Watch. Teen-age pregnancy is responsible for many school dropouts in the Latino community, she said.

Intend to Marry

Rather than seeking higher education, most young girls intend to marry and devote themselves to their children, she said.

Latinos often are difficult to reach, she said, because the community is diverse and many do not respond to flyers or newspaper announcements. "You have to get in and find the leaders," she said.

The Junior League targeted teen-age pregnancy as one of the group's service projects two years ago, said Nancy Kendrick, Junior League chairwoman of the Child Watch project.

A publication produced by public television station KOCE-TV (Channel 50) in conjunction with a teen-age pregnancy program, "Generation at Risk," lists 34 medical, public school, shelter and resource programs in Orange County. "We don't know how they relate to each other, if there are gaps or duplications of effort. We hope to find out. This is a first step," Kendrick said.

By focusing on prevention, she said, the league can provide a service without taking a stand on the moral controversies of the teen-age pregnancy issue.

"At this point, we hope to pull in other groups," she said. "We don't represent the county as a whole. We need other groups to gather data, come up with solutions and give the project credibility."

Other Projects

Other Child Watch projects in the state are under way in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Mateo and San Diego. A Los Angeles project, also run by the Junior League, uncovered fragmented services and has resulted in a county-appointed adolescent pregnancy task force, Scott said.

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