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Louisiana teen pregnancy rates at national average, may be lowering

3rd June 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Travis Andrews
The Louisiana Weekly Contributing Writer

Teen pregnancy rates may not be as high as once thought.

Teen pregnancy rates, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, remain statistically average in Louisiana compared to the national average, and Enel Wise-Mitchell, the teen coordinator for Healthy Start New Orleans, has seen a decrease in the past year in Orleans parish and thinks it could be a continuing trend.

Though the factors that lead to teen pregnancy are numerous, the African-American community experiences the highest rate of early pregnancies in Orleans Parish. In 2008, according to the last year of released statistics currently with available data from the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, 15- to 17-year-old African-Americans saw a teen birth rate of 45.2 to 17.8 in the white community. And for 18 to 19-year-olds, the number raised to 117.6 to 71.5 (in 15 to 19 year-olds, the rate for African-Americans was 76 while the rate for whites was 40.4).

But programs like Healthy Start and Nurse-Family Partnership appear to be helping to lower these numbers.

Healthy Start New Orleans is a 21-year-old community-based program sponsored by the New Orleans Health Department aimed at providing both healthcare and a community for mothers in need, focusing on education and helping those mothers have access to such resources as Medicaid, WICK, job training and mental health counseling, among other things.

The main purpose of Healthy Start is to foster a safe environment to offer education on everything from safe sex to breastfeeding. The program can be involved in a mother’s life from the first trimester (it is actually encouraged women come in during this time rather than waiting) until the child is two years old, an eligibility requirement set by the state.

“It’s an eligibility requirement we really don’t like,” said Dr. Jeff Guidry, the local evaluator for Healthy Start New Orleans.

Ideally, they would like to work with children well into their third and forth years of life, but in the two plus years they do have to work with young mothers, the focus is educational, especially among teens. One of the program focuses is helping teenage mother stay in school and perform well while taking care of their children.

“The dropout rate for this semester was very low,” said Wise-Mitchell. “I had a lot of teens that graduated from high school.”

In addition, she said she saw less pregnancies and less repeat pregnancies this year (the program’s year ends on May 31).

“We have a great relationship with the various school groups,” said Aggie Williams, the community relations and development coordinator for Healthy Start New Orleans.

The organization was rebranding following Hurricane Katrina, which also coincided with a suspected increase in teen pregnancy in Orleans (no true data exists for this time period), since teens were returning to city without their parents. Since then, the organization has tried to do things such as prevent cycling, which is the term for families in which teenage pregnancies are common (i.e. mothers having children while teens who in turn have their own children as teens).

The Nurse-Family Partnership offers similar services, having nurses pay home visits to work with mothers in need from pre-natal stages until the child is, again, two years old.

“Our goals are really to transform the lives of children and families,” said Kimberly Williams, the program developer for Nurse-Family Partnership National Service Office. “We have over thirty years of research on the program to show that it works to achieve significant outcomes.”

She said the program is a “psycho-social intervention,” which, like Healthy Start, focuses on the mental state of the mother as well as the physical well being of the child.

“The nurse really helps the mom to bond with her baby, to make sure there is a real attachment,” Williams said, pointing out this is one reason why in Louisiana, 92 percent of 21-month-olds are at or above normal language development skills for their age group.

“By intervening early in the life of a child, we are able to help,” she said.

Wise-Mitchell said there needs to be easier access for teenagers to information and resources to help prevent pregnancies, but that education is beginning to make a difference. Some children they work with have never been taught anything, be it abstinence or comprehensive sex education (both of which Guidry said should be taught, hand in hand, as early as elementary school).

“When I work with these kids, they say, ‘No one’s every told me I could say “no,’” said Guidry.

But Williams said, “Whatever someone is saying to them is working.”

Prom season notoriously offers high rates of pregnancy nine months later, but Williams said this year, she saw a strong increase in teens simply having fun: All wearing the same color dresses, renting a stretch limousine and going to a bowling ally.

“They all got together, Black and white, and rented these stretch limousines to be in a group,” said Williams, something that helps keep them from engaging in the often-pressured activity of sex on prom night.

One way or another, Wise-Mitchell and everyone at Healthy Start New Orleans hopes the trend she’s seeing continues.

This story originally published in the May 30, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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