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Judith Sandalow Headshot

An Ounce of Prevention for Teen Pregnancy

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There is a common factor among the majority of new cases coming in the door at DC's Child and Family Services Agency: 76 percent of them are families that started as teen pregnancies.

This statistic is from 2009, the last year for which CFSA has released data. To be clear, these new cases weren't all 19-or-younger mothers. Some were, but many of these young women had become mothers as teens and their interaction with CFSA came after several years and, often, additional children.

Everybody knows the phrase "child protective services," the government agencies and workers who remove children from unsafe home. But protection is only half of the job description for child-serving organizations. Both agencies like CFSA and nonprofit organizations like Children's Law Center work to do two things: protect and prevent. They seek to protect children who have already experienced abuse or neglect and prevent other children from the same trauma.

Preventing at-risk children from maltreatment -- and accordingly, from entering the foster care system -- is the trickier job in many ways. There is no silver bullet. But seeing that more than three-quarters of new CFSA cases come from families that began as teen pregnancies, the District should focus preventive services on these families through a multi-agency effort. Doing so would help CFSA achieve its goal of "narrowing the front door" and keeping children from entering the foster care system when their safety and well-being isn't compromised -- and build strengths within the families.

The District has some admirable programs already in place to support teen parents and their children. An August 3 summit will highlight New Heights, which aids expecting and parenting high school students in earning their degrees. New Heights is a successful collaboration and we've heard Children's Law Center clients speak highly of the services they've received through it. The Generations program at Children's National Medical Center, which includes an on-site CLC lawyer, also boasts positive outcomes. Over 80 percent of Generations mothers attend or have graduated high school, whereas nationally only half of teen mothers attain a high school diploma by age 22. Generations parents are also much less likely to become pregnant again as teens or young adults. A home visiting program, like that practiced by another CLC medical partner, Mary's Center, can also provide crucial and comprehensive support for first-time mothers and their young children.

But to rely on another phrase everyone knows: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We've also heard CLC clients -- particularly, teen mothers -- talk about the reasons they became teen parents. And their stories reveal the real opportunity for prevention.

Many of the youth we serve come from families where high school diplomas are rare. Steady jobs are not the norm. As they grow into young adults, many can't imagine themselves in different circumstances -- yet they're also still trying to form their own identities and figure out what mark they will leave on the world. The teen mothers we work with say they weren't good at school, or athletics, or any hobbies. But they thought they could be good mothers. This is what we've heard in D.C. and it rings true in other cities; Promises I Can Keep interviews young mothers telling similar stories, and the book's authors come to the same conclusion.

This kind of hopelessness is devastating to anyone who knows or works with teenagers. It's especially depressing to see it in the District, where year after year countless young interns -- to say nothing of newly elected officials -- arrive brimming with optimism about how they're going to change the world.

All parents -- even teen parents -- want to give their children a better life with more opportunity than they had. As a community we should want this for our children as well. We should ensure that options exist so no young girl thinks her only chance for success comes from becoming a mother. We should have programs that instill confidence in young girls, show them their own potential, open a world of opportunity for them. We should do more to prevent the hopelessness that leads to teen pregnancy, and by so doing, prevent more children from being placed in foster care.