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Telling It Like It Is : Teen-Age Mothers Offer Peers Inside Views of How Life Is With a Baby

June 30, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

A loud, infectious squeal suddenly erupted from the 6-month-old baby sitting on her mother's lap, prompting scattered giggles from the students in the Friday morning health class at Esperanza High School in Anaheim.

The baby's mother, used to such distractions, simply smiled at her daughter and continued talking.

The words came easily, without hesitation or embarrassment, as she described how she discovered that she was pregnant last year.

Like the three other teen-age mothers seated with her in front of the classroom with their young children, 16-year-old Amanda Rockwell of Yorba Linda was there to talk.

"I went down to the clinic to get back on the pill, and they said, 'Your period's late.' I said, 'Well, my period's always late.' They said, 'Well, we have to do a routine pregnancy test.' I said, 'OK, that's fine. Go ahead. It's a waste of your time; it's a waste of my money.' So they did it and I came back and they said, 'Guess what? You're six weeks pregnant.' I felt kind of like this bomb dropped on me. I could hardly even walk out. My friend had to kind of drag me out of the clinic. I was a mess. . . ."

On Nov. 6, 1988--two weeks before her 16th birthday and two months before she received her driver's license--Amanda Rockwell gave birth to her daughter, Arielle, a blue-eyed strawberry blonde who resembles her mother.

The high school junior was one of four teen-age mothers--and one teen-age father--who recently spent the day at Esperanza High School talking to Bob Claborn's sophomore health classes, a dramatic supplement to a five-week unit on "masculinity and femininity."

The young mothers are part of Teen CAST, which stands for Communication About Sexual Truth. The 2-year-old program is sponsored by the Orange County Center for Health, an Anaheim community clinic.

"Encouraging (sexual) abstinence is one of our goals, but what we really want to bring to the classroom more than anything is the reality of being a teen mom," said Cecilia Esparza, the center's director of program development.

During the Teen CAST presentations, each teen-age mother tells her own story, describing the costs involved in having a baby and relating the day-to-day responsibilities in raising a child. The young mothers also field student questions--everything from "Were you using birth control?" to "How did your parents react when they found out you were pregnant?"

The Teen CAST appearance at Esperanza was one of 15 presentations made in high schools throughout the county over the past school year. Esparza, who recruits many of the young mothers from high schools that offer teen mother programs, expects to do even more Teen CAST presentations in the fall.

With the number of pregnancies among young girls in the county continuing to rise, Esparza said, there's no questioning the need for a program that brings "the reality of adolescent pregnancy" into the classroom.

The latest available statistics show that 3,229 Orange County girls and women ages 10 to 19 gave birth in 1987, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency. There were 3,089 births to the same age group in 1986. (Some of the 18- and 19-year-olds were married but not a substantial proportion.)

"More younger teens are having babies than ever, which is a trend that is particularly disturbing," said Cynthia Scheinberg, executive director of the Coalition Concerned With Adolescent Pregnancy, a nonprofit family life education center dedicated to the prevention of unintended adolescent pregnancy. The Santa Ana-based organization funds Teen CAST.

"One of the programs that many community members have requested for a long time," Scheinberg said, "is that teens who have experienced pregnancy and parenting talk to other youth as kind of a voice of experience."

As a prelude to hearing these young "voices of experience" at Esperanza High, Esparza painted a realistic picture of the lives and futures of the typical teen-age mother.

The majority of them, she told the students, have difficulty raising their child. They have unstable relationships with the child's father, limited financial resources and, due to the responsibilities involved in raising a child, are under more stress than the average teen-ager can handle.

Many teen moms, she added, do not finish high school and have minimal job skills that result in low-paying jobs. They also are more likely to be on government support programs. If married, they face a divorce rate three times higher than average and have a higher incidence of child abuse.

But far more effective than an adult describing the disadvantages that the children of teen-age mothers face in life or preaching to the students, Esparza said, is having someone their own age talk to them about teen-age pregnancy.

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