Hoping to combat Gila County’s high teenage pregnancy rates, which rank among the worst in the state, the local health department is launching a coalition aimed at educating both parents and teens.
Teens account for one in five of all births in Rim Country.
Armed with a $135,000 annual federal grant to spend countywide, Health Programs Manager Paula Horn said a new teenage pregnancy prevention coalition will develop a community-based program for education. The group is now forming.
“You can put on a curriculum, but if you don’t have community buy-in, it’s really not going to be beneficial because you’re not going to have anybody there,” said Horn.
By mid-fall, the health department could begin offering parents classes, teaching them how to talk with their kids about sex, with classes targeted to teens coming later.
The phenomenon poses a problem for taxpayers since most teen moms end up on welfare and never earn a high school diploma.
Horn said the coalition will survey the community, and develop a program tailored to its needs and wants. For example, people may want an abstinence-only program.
Gila County’s teen pregnancy rate ranks second in the state with teens, accounting for 21 percent of all pregnancies. Rim Country teens had more babies than those in Globe in 2009, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Teenage births in northern Gila County accounted for 20 percent of all births, while representing 18 percent in southern Gila County. San Carlos raised the whole county’s average, with teens accounting for 36 percent of all pregnancies.
County health officials previously thought most of the teen pregnancy problem existed in Globe, said Horn. “We really didn’t think there was that much of an issue in Payson because there hadn’t been in the past,” she said.
Countywide, girls aged 18 or 19 accounted for most of the teen births. And girls from 15 to 17 accounted for nearly one-third of teen births. One Globe girl under the age of 15 gave birth.
Globe has a county-run teenage pregnancy prevention program, although it focuses on juvenile delinquents. Payson has no proactive teenage pregnancy prevention programs, including at the high school.
For those who know where to find information, willing adults will teach them, but nobody leads the effort.
For instance, public health nurse Lucinda Campbell at the county health department in Payson offers testing for sexually transmitted diseases, brown bags with condoms and she will answer kids’ questions — as long as they’re 15 or older.
And at the faith-based New Beginnings Pregnancy Center, kids can seek out an abstinence-based education.
Without education, Gila County kids keep having kids.
“It’s hard for parents to talk to their kids,” said Horn, who grew passionate about this topic through both research and personal experience. Horn’s 14-year-old daughter has friends who have become pregnant. “It’s scary,” she said. “Sometimes my child doesn’t want to hear some of the things that I say because I’m very proactive with her.”
However, parents not in the health field might find it difficult to access information or drum up the nerve to broach an uncomfortable subject.
Arizona spends millions on social services for teen moms and related problems. Nearly 80 percent of unmarried teen moms end up on welfare, and just one-third earn a high school diploma. Their sons are 13 percent more likely to land in jail, and their daughters are 22 percent more likely have kids as teens.
In 2004, teenage pregnancy cost Arizona taxpayers $252 million, including $48 million for public health care, $32 million for child welfare, and $43 million for incarceration, according to DHS.