Deborah Martinez/KUNM News
New Mexico’s teen pregnancy rate is declining – down 41 percent between 1998 and 2011 – but the state still has the second highest rate in the nation behind Mississippi. High poverty and high drop-out rates play a big part. But a Santa Fe high school program that’s helping teens earn their diplomas while overcoming the challenges of parenthood is making a dent in the stark statistics.
Santa Fe High School senior Karla Aguirre laughs easily with her son Harley, but when he was born three months early, life wasn’t so rosy.
“In the beginning it was hard since he was a preemie,” she said, noting she had to stay with her son at the hospital for the first three months of his life.
Because he came into the world weighing only one pound, Harley developed heart problems and asthma. Karla misses school when he’s hospitalized – three times already and he’s only nine months old.
The human cost in health problems and stress for the family is high, and so are the financial costs of caring for the babies of teen moms.
“The economic impact was $580 million a year, and that includes loss of education, loss of future income, Medicaid,” said Sylvia Ruiz. She directs the New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Coalition, and she pointed to an economic impact study conducted in 2004 by Dr. Philip Ganderton of the University of New Mexico that found it’s not uncommon for babies born to teens to have special needs.
“Frequently, these babies can be born with developmental issues needing ancillary services like occupational, physical, speech therapy, those kinds of things. So it includes everything, that cost,” Ruiz added.
As a mom living in a low-income household, Karla spends close to $1,000 a month on Harley’s special formula and diapers. She smiles with emphasis that she loves her baby, but if she had it to do over again:
“I made an error and I know. I don’t regret it because I love my baby, but I wish I could’ve gotten pregnant later in my life.”
According to the U.S. Department of Human Services, “compared with their peers who delay childbearing, teen girls who have babies are less likely to finish high school, more likely to rely on public assistance and more likely to be poor as adults.”
But Karla is determined to overcome these odds and to earn a high-school diploma and then, she said, a college degree.
The day-care center where Karla leaves little Harley while she takes her individualized online coursework for teen moms is on Santa Fe High School’s campus. Since she’s close by, she can visit him at lunch and come quickly when he gets sick.
Alicia Wolfe is the coordinator of the Teen Parent Center, which helps dozens of teen moms with baby supplies each year. She said studies have found that teens enrolled in programs that offer a wide variety of support have healthier babies and higher graduation rates. The center has an annual budget of $237,000, mostly Medicaid funding.
Wolfe said many critics of the center say their work supporting teen moms encourages sexual activity. But she dismisses that claim.
“By the time get to us they are pregnant,” Wolfe states. “We want them to be successful. We are not encouraging them to have more children. We’re supporting them under their circumstances.”
Wolfe said teens in these kinds of programs also have fewer repeat pregnancies. For Karla, it was the second. The first time she had a miscarriage – she was 15 then.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and New Mexico’s Department of Health show almost one in five births to teen moms aged 15-19 across the United States are to girls who had given birth before, and that those second infants were often born too small or too soon, leading to health problems.
Wolfe says part of the center’s mission is to help prevent teens from having more babies so early in their lives.
“We have lots of conversations about birth control,” she explains. “You know, what are their plans? Obviously, abstinence is the safest way not to have a second pregnancy.”
In 2010 the U.S. teen birth rate declined by 9-percent – putting it at the lowest level since the mid-1940s.
But despite the drop, Silvia Ruiz with the New Mexico Teen Pregnancy Coalition says more work is needed. She says we need a sharper focus on young men taking more responsibility for preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, some of which are linked to cancer.
“We as a society haven’t done justice in including young men in the responsibility of contracepting themselves,” Ruiz said. “They don’t need to be depending on the female to do it. They need to do it, because it’s not just pregnancy now, it’s STIs, adolescent STIs in New Mexico are an issue.” Ruiz added teens can be exposed to HIV/AIDS as well.
Ruiz said another important success factor is having both parents raising a child together.
“We also know that kids do better when there are two adults, no matter what the adults look like, what color they are, what their orientation is,” she said, describing how two adults caring for a child is easier. The child have more positive outcomes.
“We’re barely now understanding the importance of that, of including males in this issue,” she said.
For Karla Aguirre, that strategy absolutely hits home. Karla’s dad had to raise her and her sister alone after their mother abandoned the family when they were young.
“I think every child needs their father and their mom, even if they’re not together, like if they’re involved, it’s really important for them,” Aguirre said. “I didn’t have my mom at all, so I really needed a mom figure at my side. I don’t even know my mom. I haven’t seen her for 15 years, so it’s really, really hard.”
Harley’s dad, Gustavo Aldana, held his son close, and the 22-year old said he definitely plans to be there to help Karla raise their baby, and have more – but only after Harley gets older.
“Well,” Aldana said as he pushed back a shock of red hair, “I talk with Karla, and I tell her that, yes, we’re going to get married, and then as a married couple we’ll get a house.”
Aldana said Harley’s birth was a blessing. He said he and Karla are grateful for the help they’ve received from many people as they set out on this journey of parental responsibility.
KUNM News is a New Mexico In Depth media partner. Editor’s Note: A paragraph in this story came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. We regret our failure to give full and accurate attribution.