As teen pregnancy rates fall statewide, Garfield County’s numbers remain well above the Colorado average.
Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Health Statistics record 42.1 births per thousand teens in 2012, the third highest rate in the state and 43 percent higher than the state rate of 29.4 per thousand. According to Garfield County’s Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), that amounted to 76 births, compared with 70 in 2011 and 77 in 2010.
More recent data is pending, and the comparatively small sample size makes it hard to pin down a trend, much less a cause. Still, folks who devote their lives to educating and supporting teens and who deal with teen pregnancy every day are concerned.
“Anytime you have a high number as compared to the state or nation, it’s alarming,” said PREP Manager Diana Andrews. “It’s even more alarming that our county is not seeing the same downward trend as the state and nation.”
Rates are down elsewhere due largely reduced sexual activity and increased contraceptive use, Andrews said. Those can be a result of more resources, better education or simply a cultural shift.
Many resources are dedicated to helping that happen here.
Glenwood Middle and High School teach their own comprehensive sexual health curricula, while Grand Valley embraces abstinence-only sexual health education.
PREP offers “Be Proud Be Responsible” at several local high schools, “Draw the Line” for middle schoolers, Cuidate (take care of yourself) for Spanish speakers, healthy relationships classes, leadership conferences and parent workshops.
There are also plans to revive La Latinas Arribe, a group/class for Hispanic girls at Basalt High School. The school, which boasted zero pregnancies during the time the program was active, reported an increase in teen moms after it disbanded due to budget constraints.
Advocates believe all the education programs have an impact.
“PREP data has shown a consistent increase in the number of students who reported their intentions to remain abstinent, put off having sex until they are ready and/or to use protection or ask their partner to use protection if and when they do decide to engage in sexual behavior,” Andrews said.
Andrews cautioned against trying to pin down a single cause for Garfield County’s rates.
“The reasons youth engage in sexual and/or at-risk behaviors is multi-layered and complex,” she said. “Reasons for one community may not be the same as another.”
PREP has been holding focus groups to determine what’s working and identify problem areas. One group, for example, reported trouble getting condoms and the fear of being discovered trying to obtain them, a common challenge for youth in small communities. Planned Parenthood’s anonymity doesn’t prevent teens from running into someone they know outside, and the occasional gauntlet of protesters doesn’t make things any easier.
In the end, most studies indicate that difficulty getting condoms or birth control doesn’t discourage teens from sexual activity, it simply causes them to proceed without protection.
Garfield County doesn’t have an organization receiving Title X funds for accessible birth control. Eagle County, which does, had a birth rate of 22.6 per thousand teens in 2012 – lower than the state average.
Wherever they live, teen moms often have fewer options than older parents and face tough decisions. In addition to its high birth rate, Garfield County also has greater density of parents without a high school diploma (26 percent, the second highest in the state) and uninsured children (19.4 percent, higher than any other Colorado county).
Yampah Mountain High School’s Teen Parent Program is dedicated to bringing those figures down. The program provides on-site day care while teen parents from Aspen to Parachute attend the 150-student alternative high school in Glenwood.
The school has built-in parent-child time and classes on best practices for child health, safety and development.
“Teen pregnancy is one of the main causes of high school dropout nationally,” said Sally Kilton, who has worked with the program for eight years. “We create an environment where they can complete their education with the support they need to overcome the barriers of parenthood.”
Perhaps most importantly, the school is a safe and accepting environment for learning in a world that isn’t always kind to teen moms.
“You lose a lot of friends and you get a lot of looks,” said Haley, a 16-year-old at the school.
She tries not to let it bother her.
“They don’t live my life and they don’t know what I’ve been through,” she said.
Haley called being a mom “hard but fun,” a phrase that was echoed by several other teens in the program.
“You’re not just thinking of yourself anymore,” she said. “You have to wake up in the middle of the night. When you want to go do something you have to find someone to watch them. It’s a lot of work.”
Although she wishes she had waited and appreciates the break that school provides, she wouldn’t trade her 2-month-old son Andrew for anything.
“The first time I felt him move, it was the best feeling in the world,” Haley said. “You really fall in love with your baby.”
In the end, she says, she made a decision to have a child instead of opting for abortion or adoption.
“I put him on this planet, so I needed to be responsible and raise him,” she said.
Mariah, also 16, credits her 7-month-old daughter Elizabeth with turning her life around.
“It changes you, in a good way,” she said. “As soon as “As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I stopped drinking and smoking and everything bad. Just for her.”
Mariah works nights and tries hard to be self-sufficient. She discovered the school after several months of motherhood and said she loves it. Even so, she said, “all I think about is [parent-child] time and coming to be with her.”
Tina, 19, has a husband to help with her 2-year-old daughter Liliana. It’s still a struggle, and she sees benefits to the program beyond education.
“Each year we become a family,” she said. “We’ve got each others’ backs.”
The girls swap tips, and the kids learn from each other, too. Liliana started walking a week into Tina’s first term.
“It’s helpful for them to watch other kids,” said Haven, 16, whose nearly year-old son Declan began crawling after seeing another child do it.
She moved up from Grand Junction specifically for the program.
“I did a visit here and completely fell in love with it,” she said.
According to Kilton, enrollment in the Teen Parent Program has decreased year over year, a trend that she hopes reflects long-term teen pregnancy rates. Twelve moms are in the program now, although more could join as the semester progresses. Some come pregnant while others join with a toddler in hand. They hail from all cultural and economic backgrounds. No two cite exactly the same reasons for being there.
“Every situation is a different story,” Kilton said.