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'I Can't Do Childish Stuff Anymore' : Teen-Age Girls By the Thousands Are Getting Pregnant in L.A. The Experience Brings a Bundle of Joy and Uncertainty to Their Lives.

October 16, 1994|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Javonna Clark arrived at Expressly Portraits at the Fox Hills Mall in Culver City in a brown baby-doll dress, eager to receive the free beauty makeover she had won in a store drawing.

Like other 17-year-olds enthralled with the idea of looking glamorous for a day, Clark giggled girlishly as the store's makeup artist painted her lips ruby red and rolled her hair in curls that fell seductively against her face.

Although Clark seemed to fit the profile of a giddy teen-age girl whose biggest concern is the upcoming high school prom, her life is hardly so simple. For one thing, she recently had a baby, whom she is raising while still in high school.

"I can't do childish stuff anymore," said Clark, a senior at Riley High in Watts, a school for pregnant and parenting girls. "I always have to think of the baby first. Before, my friends were like, 'Come out and party,' and I would go. But now, I have to be more responsible."

Although the rate of all births is on the rise, an increasing number of teen-agers have been having babies in Los Angeles County--a trend that continues to be most prevalent among African Americans and Latinas, who account for nearly nine out of 10 teen-age mothers.

In 1992, 23,970 babies were born to girls under the age of 20--an increase of 6,208 babies since 1982, according to figures from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Buried beneath these figures, however, are the stories behind the pregnancies and the incidents that lead many young women to this fate. Sometimes, girls get pregnant out of ignorance, but they also have babies to hold down a man, fit in with their friends or simply have someone to love. Despite the financial drawbacks of teen pregnancy, many girls are determined to rise to the challenges of early motherhood and build futures for themselves and their babies.

Sharon (not her real name) first got pregnant at age 13. Now 16, she is the mother of two. Although Sharon is hardly naive about the challenges of being a single parent, she is convinced that if she hadn't gotten pregnant, she would be dead.

"Having the babies stopped me from gang-banging, selling drugs, robbing people and going to jail," she said. "I wanted a baby because I wanted something to love and care about. I started turning my life around after the babies were born because they gave me reason to live."

Her life, however, is far from manageable, particularly in light of past tragedies that still haunt her. In May, 1993, Sharon and her twin sister were involved in a random drive-by shooting in Panorama City. Sharon was shot in the leg; her sister was killed.

"She was the 'A' student and I was the one who always got in trouble," said Sharon, who school officials asked not to be identified to ensure her safety. "I was depressed after that and all stressed out. But then I got pregnant again in June, so I knew I had to pull myself together."

Sharon enrolled at Riley High School during her second pregnancy and now hopes to earn her high school diploma through independent study at home. She lives in the Downtown area with her children, while the father of her two babies has another girlfriend and lives elsewhere.

"I want my kids to grow up as successful kids," she said. "I don't want them to gang-bang, and I don't want them to rob and steal. I don't want them to be like me."

The girls at McAlister High School--another Los Angeles Unified School District school offering special programs for pregnant and parenting teens--attend classes in an almost surreal setting. Girls as young as 13 mingle with 17- and 18-year-olds--bonded by their swollen bellies and flushed complexions.

In home economics class, young girls sit in front of sewing machines stitching clothes that their yet-to-be-born babies will wear. In parenting class, girls "ooh" and "aah" as they look at pictures illustrating the dramatic changes taking place in their bodies.

Isabelle Carlson, an administrative assistant and former teacher at McAlister who has worked with pregnant girls since 1959, said nothing surprises her about the circumstances under which teens get pregnant.

"I once knew an 11-year-old who was pregnant," she said. "The father was her 20-year-old cousin, and the family blamed her because they thought she seduced him."

Carlson also knows a 17-year-old who got pregnant after being gang-raped by 10 men.

"She has no idea who the father is," Carlson said. "We've also had cases where the fathers are brothers, relatives or mothers' boyfriends."

Although teen pregnancy is still regarded as a societal taboo, it doesn't happen only to "bad" or promiscuous girls, said Mary Ann Shiner, principal at Riley High. Honor students get pregnant, as well as girls who agree to have sex for the first time.

As a girl growing up in South-Central, Javonna Clark was more interested in playing basketball and baseball with boys than dating them. All that changed, however, when she met Mikey Simpson on an MTA bus in July, 1993.

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