Nothing is more disheartening than having a teenager tell you that, before they had a child, their life had no purpose. Such comments were common as I interviewed several teen parents for this story.
Elysia Gonzalez was 13 years old when her friends would talk about sex. She was one of the last virgins among them, and she felt peer pressure to participate in the conversation but didn’t know how.
By 14 she had met a boy; 15-year-old Brandon Vigil. A short time later, they became sexually active. Two months after that, she was pregnant.
A month after delivering their son, Gonzalez and Vigil sat down and told me their story. They told me about a not-so-positive childhood cut short by a problem that is an ongoing issue in Pueblo, Colorado, and across the nation.
The reasons why Elysia got pregnant are plentiful and there is more than enough blame to spread around. But in the end, Elysia and Brandon have accepted their new roles as parents.
Both of them are now a year older, and while Brandon is working at odd jobs here and there to make ends meet, the trials they will face have not even begun to present themselves.
Meanwhile, hundreds of teenage girls in Pueblo, and other southern Colorado communities, will follow in Elysia’s footsteps this year.
In most cases, teenage pregnancy is a sure-fire way to end up living in poverty. Without the education or financial means to raise a child, let alone take care of themselves, many teen parents barely get by. To make matters worse, studies have shown that children of teenage parents repeat their mistakes.
Southern Colorado is home to one community that is one of the nation’s leading worst, when it comes to teen pregnancy. Each year more than 300 teenage girls give birth in Pueblo alone. "I don't think there is any doubt in anyone's mind that this is significant, and it affects each and every one of us," says Dr. Chris Nevin-Woods, Director of the Pueblo City-County Health Department.
Each child born of a teenage mother in Colorado costs the community an estimated $4,056. That doesn’t seem like very much, but when more than 300 babies are being born every year, it adds up. In 2004 the cost for Pueblo teens alone was $1.3 million. Nationwide it was $9 billion.
Getting pregnant as a teen in Pueblo has become so tolerated, there is little to no stigma. It has become a social norm. "Every hall you walk down in high school, you see a pregnant girl," says Elysia.
Megan Kraemer attends Central High School in Pueblo. She was 16 when she got pregnant. She was the second of her group of friends to do so. "Of my close friends, more than half of them have kids,” explained Kraemer.
According to a D-60 survey, 57 percent of students between grades six and 12 admitted to being sexually active.
Kraemer was also able to confirm something that is even more disturbing. "One of my friends was trying to get pregnant, and then when she got pregnant she didn't know what to do about it," she says.
Just about every teen mom we talked to confessed they were not ready for the changes their bodies underwent after they got pregnant, or for the post-delivery / pregnancy issues that would remain with them for years to come. Ugly stretch marks were the number one regret. Others talked of back pain they attribute to choices they made during the delivery process.
Doctors say young girls just don’t know the dangers they face by getting pregnant as a teen. There are health risks not only for themselves, but for the baby as well. "The younger the mom is, the less formed her boney structures of her pelvis are, the less ready she is for the process of childbirth," explains Dr. Michael Growney, MD, FACOG.
Other dangers include a higher potential for the pregnant teen to develop seizures and high blood pressure related to the pregnancy, as well as premature delivery. Premature births carry their own dangers. In the first year of life the death rate for babies born early is higher than for full term babies.
Growney is not surprised by the percentage of sexually active teens in Pueblo. He says, by the time he sees them in his office many teen girls are already pregnant. "I think it's a shame that our young children and our young women, don't have the education and the information with which to make appropriate decisions," says Dr. Growney.
With such a high amount of sexually active teens, we wanted to know how D-60 was educating them, and what the students were being given to learn.
Randy Evetts, the project director for D-60’s Safe Schools program explained the districts approach to the situation. "We know that [students] make decisions impulsively that can impact the rest of their lives, so we certainly encourage that abstinence, however we do recognize that students do make those decisions and we feel that it's our responsibility to at least offer them education that teaches them how to protect themselves," says Evetts.
However, the school district is coming up short on the protection side of education, according to students like Elysia. "It's all about, ‘don't do it because this might happen.’ It's not, ‘we don't want you to do it, but if you decide to do it this is how to protect yourself’," says Gonzalez.
Elysia says, had she known about the basic biology of her own fertility cycle, she would have been better prepared to protect herself. It’s information she never would have received in the classroom. "I know the sex education curriculum, the reducing the risk curriculum, doesn't not go into the depth of that," explained Evetts. (To hear Dr. Growney give a basic explanation of the female fertility cycle, click the link above)
The health course students are required to take in order to graduate, as approved by the board of education, is just nine weeks long; three of them are devoted to sex education.
Now, with the community calling for a change, this glaring deficiency in instruction is being addressed by the school district. "[D-60 is] looking at more of a building block, more of a continuum of education, at least from grades four through 12… a more comprehensive, for all health topics, approach and building on each year much as you would a math class," says Evetts.
The earliest this new curriculum would be put into place is next school year; too late for the hundreds of girls who will get pregnant this year. "It's crazy how many kids are doing that, because that's really what we are. We're kids, children," says Gonzalez.
No longer a child, Gonzalez and her boyfriend Brandon are now trying to raise Brandon Jr. with the help of her mother. The going won’t be easy, Elysia’s mother is still trying to raise four children of her own.
Still, Elysia keeps a positive outlook. "I don't regret having him, I mean he's the most important thing in my life,” says Gonzalez. And despite her young age, Elysia’s mother says, she has grown-up fast. “I wish I had been older, so I could give him more," explained Gonzalez. "My goal is to make sure that he has a life... That's what I want. I want him to have a childhood," she says.
She also doesn’t want her son to make the same mistakes his parents made.
Meanwhile, the Pueblo City-County Health Department and several community partners have come together and are looking for other ways to reduce the teen pregnancy rate. Funded by a grant from the county’s Department of Social Services, they’ve hired the JSI Research and Training Institute of Denver to conduct a study that may identify a cause for the high rate of teen pregnancies in Pueblo County.
While the answer may seem as simple as, teens are having sex therefore teens are getting pregnant, Dr. Nevin-Woods thinks there may be something more too it.
While the study is being conducted, the task force will look at another options for curbing the rate of pregnancy in teens by increasing their developmental assets. Armed with a list of 40 assets, 20 internal and 20 external, the group hopes to get the community on board with the potential solution.
According to the Search Institute, the more assets children have, the less likely they are to become a teen pregnancy statistic.
Click the link below to view the 40 developmental assets for kids 12-18, and see how you can take action to make them part of your child’s life.