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Imperial County Continues To Grapple With Teen Pregnancy


California's teen birth rate has declined by 48 percent since 1991. It now stands at the lowest level in state history. But the rate of teen pregnancy remains high in some parts of California, including Imperial County.

— California's teen birth rate has declined by 48 percent since 1991. It now stands at the lowest level in state history. But the rate of teen pregnancy remains high in some parts of California, including Imperial County.

At Calexico High School, teens gather outside the perimeter fence after the last bell has sounded.

Jessica, which is not her real name, stands away from the crowd. She never finished high school. Jessica got pregnant when she was 15.

"No one really told me anything about protection, condoms, or anything," Jessica said. "I didn't really know.

"So when you say no one, I replied, "who do you mean by no one?"

"I mean my parents. One of my friends, they told me that we have to use a condom and whatever, but I didn't know if it was right for like me, that I was 15, to buy condoms. I didn't know if it was right."

Now Jessica is 18, and she has a 3-year-old girl.

Lydia had a baby boy when she was 16. "People were okay with it, because usually there was like a lot of girls coming out pregnant at that time and there's still more girls coming out pregnant right now, and they don't know the difficulty that it is to have a baby at this age," Jessica says.

For every 1,000 females ages 15-19 in Imperial County, 55 gave birth in 2007. That's the sixth highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.

Robin Hodgkin is Imperial County's Director of Public Health. She says there are a number of factors that contribute to the problem.

"There's cyclical employment with agriculture," Hodgkin said. "There's a large degree of poverty. We've certainly seen cutbacks in our local universities, our community college is jam-packed. So resources for kids to go onto school, to develop professions, are very difficult here."

Hodgkin said there's also limited access to medical care and reproductive services.

So what about sex education in schools?

Eric goes to Calexico High. "There's no sex education at all in the school," Eric said. "I've never taken a sex ed class, and I'm a senior. They only gave us one pamphlet in sixth grade, and that was it."

David Groesbeck, a former superintendent of the Calexico School District, said there is sex education in junior high. Much of it is abstinence-only.

He concedes there's very little in area high schools.

"The reality is it's not happening to the extent that it needs to happen, and I think that the educational community needs to step up and provide information to kids so that they can make the right decisions," said Groesbeck.

Of course, parents have a role to play, as well. But Latinos are in the majority in Imperial County. And many Latino parents say they aren't comfortable talking with their children about sex.

Sylvia Barron grew up in Imperial County. Today, she's the bi-national coordinator for the San Diego County chapter of Planned Parenthood.

Barron said parents in Imperial County aren't in denial that their kids are sexually active. After all, they see a lot of teenage girls who are pregnant.

"If they were to acknowledge to their teen, that they know they're being sexually active or they're thinking about it, then it's giving them permission to be sexually active, and somehow that conflicts with their culture, with their upbringing, with their values," said Barron. "And that's where they find themselves at a crossroads, that's what makes it very difficult."

Barron said convincing Imperial County parents and schools to take steps to prevent teen pregnancy is tough.

"The people that I have talked to will say, it's a very conservative environment, and I know this is not supposed to be happening, and we need to change it," Barron said. "I just don't want to be the first one to do it."

Jessica wishes she had known how to protect herself.

"I mean it's really good too when you have a family and when you're old," Jessica said. "But, I don't know, I think I made a mistake. Every girl thinks they're in love and that it's okay to have babies just because you're in love. But it's not okay."

Perhaps Imperial County teens are getting a mixed message. For example, area high schools don't have comprehensive sex education. But some have daycare programs for teen moms.


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