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Living Proof That Teen-Adult Marriage Can Work

Families: She was 16 and pregnant and he was 21 when they wed 13 years ago. Now the parents of three, the O.C. couple say such choices are not the government's to make.

September 29, 1996|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO — Nowadays, the difference in their ages is barely even noticed. Robin Abramo, 29, and Chad Abramo, 35, are like many happily married couples--in love, financially stable and providing a safe and comfortable home for their three young sons.

But if some government officials had their way, and they include Gov. Pete Wilson and the director of the state's Department of Social Services, the Abramos say they would never have had a chance to become a family. Robin became an unwed mother at age 16 and Chad was a father at 21.

Relationships like the Abramos' are at the core of a continuing debate among officials from Sacramento to Orange County and beyond over teenage pregnancies.

The controversy was sparked by recent disclosures that Orange County social workers had helped some pregnant teenagers in protective custody marry the adult men who impregnated them, instead of treating the girls as victims of child abuse or statutory rape.

A flurry of questions has arisen in the wake of the revelations, but there have been few answers.

Because most of the cases involved Mexican immigrants, should Mexico's lower age of consent be taken into consideration? How young is too young? What should be done with men who break the law by having sex with underage girls? And, should the couples be allowed to marry, or be kept apart?

The Abramos are clear on where they stand.

"The lifelong and personal choices my husband and I made should not have been left up to intolerant government officials and outspoken department heads," Robin Abramo said during a recent interview in her two-story Mission Viejo home. "Sex, marriage and the bearing of children are not black-and-white issues. Attention must be paid to the individuals involved."

State officials, however, say otherwise, arguing that there are tremendous societal and financial costs associated with teen pregnancies. They estimate that California spends from $5 billion to $7 billion annually in Medi-Cal, welfare and food stamps for unwed teenage mothers and their children.

A 1995 study of teen pregnancies by professors from Carnegie Mellon and Chicago University challenges the assumptions of state officials, and argues that teenagers who get pregnant are no more likely to be financial burdens on the government than other teenagers in their same socioeconomic group.

"How much would we save if these teenagers had children later in life? The answer is zero," said V. Joseph Hotz, one of three professors who conducted the study of nearly 5,000 women interviewed each year since 1979, when all were teenagers.

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Their study found that teen mothers are no less likely to obtain a high school diploma and do not have lower earnings capacities. To the contrary, there were indications that they had worked their separate ways into better jobs. Nor were they more likely to participate in government-sponsored welfare programs, the study found.

California officials are nonetheless determined to reduce teenage pregnancies, both through a program of public education and by cracking down on men who have unlawful sex with minors.

The governor has pledged $8 million statewide this year specifically for criminally prosecuting statutory rape: an adult having sex with a minor. A law that Wilson signed this week also allows for civil fines up to $25,000 against adults who have sex with underage partners.

And Eloise Anderson, the director of the state's Social Services Department, has joined in the debate, advocating jail sentences for the men, placing the girls in foster care and giving their babies up for adoption.

"I'd like Eloise Anderson to step in my door and have dinner with my family, and say what we have is wrong and what we have should never have happened, and she knows better than we did," Robin Abramo said. "I think it's pretty irresponsible for her to be in the position she's in and making statements like that."

"It's just wrong," said Chad Abramo as he sat beside his wife in their spacious living room. "Under [Anderson's] scenario, our family would have never happened. Robin would have been taken away from her family, [our son] Justin would have been put up for adoption, our two younger sons never would have been born and I would have been put in jail. I think that would have been a tragedy. People should not draw a hard line in these cases."

Orange County social workers have come under fire for not having a set policy on such relationships.

Because they have not drawn a "hard line" in such cases, at least 15 pregnant adolescents under county protection were allowed to marry or resume living with the adult men who impregnated them. In one case, a pregnant 13-year-old girl was given court approval to marry her 20-year boyfriend.

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