Teen pregnancy programs: How Hall County is reaching out

Crystal Gonzalez of Hall County, a 17-year-old sophomore, continued to attend school while preparing for the arrival of her baby boy,
Crystal Gonzalez of Hall County, a 17-year-old sophomore, continued to attend school while preparing for the arrival of her baby boy,

“My life is over! How am I going to do this?”

Crystal Gonzalez says those thoughts went through her mind when she found out at a routine sports physical that she was five months pregnant.

Gonzalez, a 17-year-old sophomore at West Hall High School, delivered her son Feb. 11.

Gonzalez’s baby was born with spina bifida. That’s a type of neural tube defect that occurs when the neural tube doesn’t close all the way on the baby’s spine, which could cause mental or physical health issues as the baby develops.

She had a scheduled C-section to protect her baby’s spine during delivery. After delivery, Gonzalez and the baby were taken to Atlanta for surgery on his spine.

With the operation behind him, Gonzalez’s son will now undergo physical therapy and get braces to straighten his legs as he continues to grow and develop.

In Georgia, the teen pregnancy rate among all races has dropped from 28.0 (per 1,000 females) in 2010 to 21.3 in 2012 and has dropped among the Hispanic population from 53.0 in 2010 to 29.8 in 2012.

Despite these declining rates across all races over the years, teen pregnancy continues to be an issue in Hall County. That’s particularly true among the Hispanic population.

In 2012 in the county, there were a total of 76 pregnancies among girls 15 to 17. Records list 26 of the girls as white, 5 black and 45 Hispanic.

The overall birth rate among Hispanics 15 to 17 was 33.6 in Hall County in 2013. In 2010 it had been measured at 45.4.

Adds Becky Burrow of Teen Pregnancy Prevention: “About 65 percent of the pregnant girls [whom I work with] are Hispanic and the other 35 percent are Caucasian or black.”

Abstinence education and other advice

Like many Georgia counties, Hall has seen big demographic changes in the past few decades. Once mostly white with a small but significant black population, it now has a large number of Hispanics. Because this ethnic community is disproportionately made up of new arrivals, some of whom are foreign-born and have limited English, traditional outreach services have lagged.

The county needs more programs geared toward reaching the Hispanic population in attempts to prevent teenage pregnancy, local officials say.

Hall County
Hall County

“I had discussed the hopes of that [having programs to reach the Hispanic population] among some of the counselors in the high schools in the community,’’ says Natalie Vazquez, a family partner for the Early Head Start Program. “There needs to be a stronger prevention for the Hispanic community.”

“We know there is a problem [among the Hispanic population] and I feel like a lot of these kids need some good mentors out of the Hispanic community to step up and say, ‘Hey guys, there’s a better way to do this,’ but that has not happened,” says Burrow, the pregnancy counselor.

Gonzalez and other pregnant teenagers at her school meet with Burrow for lessons on how to take care of themselves during pregnancy, how to be good mothers and how not to get pregnant again until they are financially ready. They receive encouragement and resources to help them finish high school.

Teen Pregnancy Prevention Inc.’s counselors believe that girls who are at ease with their bodies, who have good self-esteem and goals they want to accomplish are less likely to engage in early sexual activity and risk unplanned pregnancy. Burrow says sex education is 95 percent from the waist up (body image, self-esteem, having goals in life, making good choices) as opposed to the actual physical part of sex education.

Teaching abstinence is a requirement for sex education in Hall County schools. Burrow agrees with that, but also says, “You have to give them explanations as to why they shouldn’t [engage in premarital sex], not just why they can’t. Any time you tell a teenager that they can’t do something, that’s the first thing that they want to do.”

Whether the young people learn about sex in school or at home, parents play an important role in teen pregnancy prevention.

“It is important for parents to educate their children about sex and relationships so they can make informed choices about actions that affect their lives,” says Dave Palmer, public information officer/risk communicator for the local public health district. “If parents become partners with their child’s school, together they can help their child through this sometimes confusing and difficult stage of life.”

Gonzalez’s mother is planning to help raise the baby and has been supportive, both financially and emotionally, during this time.

Feeling ready, but not ready

In recent times, attitudes toward sex have changed drastically in many countries, including the United States and the Latin American nations where Hall’s Hispanics have their roots. Vasquez says young Hispanics’ current attitude toward sex is reflected in their attitude toward an age-old ritual — the Quinceañera.

As Vazquez notes, a girl’s Quinceañera, when she turns 15, is a big celebration in Hispanic culture. It signifies that the girl has become a young woman.

Crystal Gonzalez during her pregnancy
Crystal Gonzalez during her pregnancy

In traditionally conservative Hispanic societies, crossing this threshold of womanhood allowed a teenager to attend social events, begin dating and start looking ahead to marriage. Officially, the elaborate ceremony is still viewed that way. But among young people today, it’s often seen as a sign that a girl is ready to become sexually active.

“Culturally, it’s a humongous thing,” Vazquez says. “Most girls want to wait for that celebration before they choose to say, ‘OK, now I can do it [have sex] because my friends have been doing it,’ or ‘My boyfriend has been pressuring me, but now I’ve already had my Quinceañera or my Sweet 16 [party], so I don’t have to worry about there being consequences.’”

Gonzalez, the 17-year-old new mother, generally agrees. “The age of 16 is a usual age for a Hispanic girl” to become sexually active nowadays, she says. “After your Quince, when you become a woman, you think it’s OK for you to do it, and you think that . . . [the relationship is] going to last forever, and it’s not.”

Before becoming pregnant, Gonzalez didn’t put any stock in her school’s teaching about sexual abstinence. But now that she has experienced one of the many possible consequences of being sexually active at a young age, she has a different outlook.

When asked what she would tell her peers now, Gonzalez says, “It might be great in the moment, but it’s not worth it. . . . It’s still better to wait until after marriage.”

Rebekah Ryan, born and raised in Hall County,  is currently seeking a master’s degree in public relations from the University of Georgia.