High teen birth rate a challenge for Latinas

Published February 11, 2009 12:00 am
Stark differences » Births among Latin American descendants four times greater than state's overall rate.
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Utah's Latina teens have an alarmingly high birth rate: They are nearly four times more likely than other 15- to 17-year-olds to have a baby.

The Utah Department of Health is releasing the report on Latino health disparities today as part of a series exploring the challenges facing Utah minorities.

It shows that while nearly 18 of every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 17 in the general Utah population had a baby in 2006-07, 66 of 1,000 Latinas had one.

The implications go beyond those teens' immediate futures. National data show Latina teen moms are more likely to drop out of high school than other teen mothers, and teen mothers are more likely to be on welfare. Children of teen mothers are more likely to live in poverty and have educational and social problems and are more likely to become teen parents themselves.

Utah health officials and community leaders say the reasons for the high rate are as varied and complicated as why teen births appear to be on the rise nationally: peer pressure, lack of parental involvement, poverty, lack of education, sexual messages from the media.

But they also point to factors unique to Latinos: A generational and cultural gap between parents and their children, as children of immigrants more quickly assimilate to the United States; cultural acceptance of teen pregnancy; tolerance for 20-something men dating young teen girls.

And some risk factors are exacerbated in Utah's Latino community: They are two times more likely to live in poverty and nearly four times more likely to not graduate from high school. Parents may be too busy making ends meet to keep tabs on their children.

"Our parents are not so involved with our lives. Our parents don't want to know who we're dating," says Claudia Carcano, an 18-year-old mother of an 18-month-old.

Sitting at a Rose Park McDonald's while son Julian played, Carcano remembers staying out until 4 a.m. when she was 13. She said her parents worked days and nights. And even though an older sister got pregnant at age 13, with an 18-year-old who was later arrested, and Carcano vowed never to be so "stupid," she became sexually active at age 14. She said she told her mom, hoping to have a discussion about birth control. But that didn't happen.

She became pregnant when she was 16 in a failed attempt to keep a boyfriend she realized later she didn't love. "I wasn't even thinking about everything else. All I thought was, 'I want us to be together.' "

She quit the cheerleading team and missed out on school dances and nights out with friends. But she finished high school and now attends Salt Lake Community College.

And while she doesn't regret having her brown-eyed boy with thick eyelashes and a mop of curly hair, she wishes she would have waited until after college so she would have more time for Julian. "I feel bad mostly for him, like why would I have him now knowing I'm not able to give him everything I can and spend time with him? I should have just waited."

To get that message across, communities hit hardest by teen pregnancy, including Midvale and Ogden, have implemented abstinence-based programs that they believe are partly responsible for their recent slight drops in their top-of-the-chart teen pregnancy rates. They, and the state health department, have also sponsored Spanish-language classes directed at parents to help them talk to their teens.

"You want to talk to parents before their children are dating and they're in reaction mode," said Annabel Sheinberg, education director for Planned Parenthood, which taught courses to Spanish-speaking parents of 9- to 11-year-olds for the health department. "We don't give them a script to follow. Sometimes I think parents would like a script."

Carla Morales and her mother have taken up the cause. They pay for a quinceanera celebration for low-income Latinas turning 15. But the girls and their parents must attend sex-ed classes.

When Morales, 20, speaks to the girls, it's from experience. She estimates that out of 15 friends from high school, only two, including herself, don't have children. She credits a good relationship with her parents and her goal of developing a beauty care line. Even while she shares this information in the classes, some tell her they are ready to have sex.

"They feel they are because their friends are having sex. They don't think it's a big deal," she said.

Mauricio Agramont, who runs the teen pregnancy prevention program for Midvale, started printing posters about statutory rape because of what he called a "huge issue" among the Latino community of older men dating younger girls.

His group also provides after-school classes for boys and girls starting in elementary school. They emphasize the importance of stress management, healthy relationships, combating peer pressure, planning for the future.

During a recent lesson about decision-making with elementary girls, teacher Janet McCullough encouraged them to ask questions and speak up. Sex wasn't mentioned -- all they were picking this day was candy -- but officials hope the girls remember the concepts when they are faced with more difficult decisions.

"When we don't stand up for ourselves," McCullough tells the girls, "we don't always get what we want."

hmay@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">hmay@sltrib.com

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