Estella Reyes lost her childhood at the age of 12.
All the innocence of youth vanished when the youngster began having sex with her 20-year-old boyfriend and became pregnant. At a time when some little girls may still be playing with dolls, Estella was buying maternity clothes.
Today, she's 14. The boyfriend is long gone and Estella is the mother of a 21-month-old toddler named Andrew. She is among the 90% of adolescent mothers in the United States who reject adoption and abortion and raise their babies, despite evidence that their children have a higher risk of living in poverty and developing behavioral and learning problems as they get older.
The ramifications for society may be staggering, warns psychiatrist Irene Goldenberg, who specializes in child behavior at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute and Hospital.
"We see developing a population (of teen-age mothers and their children) who have the cards stacked against them from the beginning. They are setting themselves up for failure, and it's costing society enormous amounts of money."
Because of mounting uneasiness over the fate of children born to teen-agers, a unique study is underway in Orange County to track the mental and physical development of children such as Estella's. It may be the most comprehensive research project yet attempted in its field.
Led by Costa Mesa psychologist Bonnie Simon, researchers from UC Irvine Medical Center and the State Developmental Research Institutes hope to learn how to predict developmental problems in these babies and to prevent them from becoming new generations of social and economic outcasts.
A 1990 national study found that of the 500,000 babies born to teen-age girls in one year, 30,000 were born to girls under 15. In Orange County alone, 4,743 girls between 10 and 19 delivered babies in 1990; 73 of them were 14 and under. A UC San Francisco study concluded that the families begun by teen-agers in California during 1985 will cost $717.6 million in food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Medi-Cal payments over the next 20 years, according to the Coalition for Children, Adolescents and Parents in Orange County. National statistics from 1988 indicate more than half of families on AFDC began with a teen-ager giving birth.
Simon, whose dedication has led her to assist in more than 30 births by youngsters in the project, stresses the concern is not just an issue of tax dollars.
"Our ultimate goal is to let people (teen-age mothers and their children) lead richer and fuller lives," Simon says.
Simon's project at UCI may be the first to track girls from the time they are pregnant to the time their children enter elementary school. About 75% will be Latina mothers and babies, who, Simon says, have been underrepresented in previous studies. Because so much of California's population is Latino, the study could provide new perspectives on children raised in Latino culture, Simon says.
There is evidence that the family support system is particularly strong in the Latino community. Previous research shows that Latina girls with babies more often have a family to return to and that these families often provide nurturing and affectionate support. That might result in better outcomes for youngsters born to Latino adolescents, Simon says. There is evidence that some adolescent mothers nurture and care for their children quite well, she says.
Estella, who lives at home with her parents and receives Medi-Cal, admits without her parents' financial support, raising her son would be much more difficult. Many children of teen-agers' are being raised with help from grandmothers and other family members. That can be good or bad, depending on the quality of care they are giving the children.
The four-year project, budgeted at $150,000 a year, is funded by the state. Simon is also seeking a federal grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Washington, D.C. The project intends to track 300 pregnant teen-agers and their children; about 100 girls are already enrolled.
Researchers have begun evaluating the adolescent girls' personalities, emotional stability, self-discipline, intelligence and health. They will also examine the girls' family and sexual histories. Babies are also given physical and mental tests.
Researchers are particularly interested in finding physical indicators of a mother's emotion stress, because such stress "may have dire effects on the unborn infant," says Simon. Stress is known to reduce oxygen to the fetus and "bathe the fetal brain in an excess of growth-retarding neurochemicals, which are capable of causing brain damage."
Previous studies estimate that 10% of children of very young mothers will be diagnosed as mentally retarded, about triple the expectation for the population as a whole. More than half will repeat a grade before they reach high school.