When young girls come to see Dr. Karole Lakota for a cough, she doesn’t let them walk out the door without talking about sexual health.
Lakota, a family practice physician at the PCC Community Wellness clinic in Austin who delivers at least two babies a month to moms under the age of 25, takes every opportunity to push prevention.
“I don’t waste time with my clients talking about the importance of wearing a bike helmet, when this population of girls don’t own bikes,” Lakota said. “Instead, we try to start a conversation at a very young age about family planning and sexual education.”
The good news is that fewer Illinois teens give birth than the national average – 38.1 births for every 1,000 teens in Illinois, compared to 42.5 births for every 1,000 nationally. White teens also do better than the average, with only 20.6 births per 1,000 teens. But black teens are way above the national average – 77.9 births per 1,000 teens, slightly higher than the 75.9 rate for Latino teens, according to a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Austin, with 30 in 1,000 births to teens, will soon have another option for teen moms seeking shelter and support.
In September, the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Zoning unanimously approved a zoning change, allowing New Moms Inc. to tear down the old 15th District Police Station at 5327 W. Chicago Ave., and replace it with a four-story office and apartment building for young mothers and their children.
New Moms Inc. has been serving teen moms in the Humboldt Park, West Town and Logan Square areas since 1983 but sees a need to provide help in Austin.
The facility, which will include a 40-bed apartment unit, business offices and a licensed daycare, will open by spring 2011, said Rhonda Loehr, development associate for New Moms Inc.
“There are not enough beds in the city for young homeless moms,” said Loehr, who estimates there are 7,000 homeless young mothers in Chicago and that 891 of moms’ ages 18 to 21 years old were turned away last year.
Loehr said the girls who go through the program have a 3.6 percent repeat pregnancy rate, low compared to the statewide rate of 24 percent.
“A lot of re-pregnancy is generational and a lack of education,” Loehr said.
Lakota said a large part of her practice is spent delivering second and third babies to teen moms – a problem she thinks has something to do with a lack of education and the acceptance of teen pregnancy within the black and Latino communities.
“I’ve seen some mothers almost applaud their teenage daughters when they find out their pregnant,” said Lakota, who has worked at the clinic for 10 years. “Others put their teen on birth control at their 12-year-old check-up and just assume their child is sexually active.”
Beyond housing the moms — who often show up with little more than their babies — the New Moms Inc. aims to help the young women see their potential beyond motherhood.
“One piece of the puzzle is providing shelter and getting them taken care of medically, another is showing them the complexity of being a good mom,” Loehr said. “Our moms do have the desire to have amazing careers they just don’t have the support or skills to get there.”
New Moms reports that 62 percent of participants graduate high school – higher than the Chicago Public Schools’ graduation rate and nearly double the average graduation rate of teen mothers, Loehr said.
A spokeswoman for Chicago Public Schools said that while CPS schools do not provide daycare, there are other services in place for teen parents, who she notes are treated the same as other students with a health issue.
“Any student that has a medical issue, has available resources,” said CPS spokeswoman Ana Vargas. “Once mom has had the baby, she can receive home schooling for a period of time and work with a counselor on credit recovery.”
But some school administrators see a real need to provide services beyond that.
At Frederick Douglass Academy High School, where 45 out of the school’s 380 students are teen parents, Principal Debra Crump stays on campus late to ensure her teen parents stay in the classroom.
“We hold the babies in the office, so the students can go to night school,” Crump said. “We care about these kids and want them to finish school and be successful.”
While there is no one cause of teen pregnancy, some researchers say that poverty levels, a lack of sexual education and cultural messages all play a role.
To reduce the dropout rate and put a dent in teenage pregnancy births, CPS should get serious about prevention, said Soo Ji Min of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
Min says there are issues of inequity and a lack of services in the Latino and black communities, but that sexual education should be made available across the board.
“There are varying degrees of sex education across schools and districts, but there are no standards to what comprehensive means,” Min said.
Because Illinois doesn’t mandate what kind of sex education kids are getting, it varies from district to district.
In October, President Obama and Congress allocated $150 million for comprehensive sex education, and Gov. Pat Quinn applied for $8 million for Illinois.
In addition, CPS received a $19.7 million teen prevention grant that it will use to fund prevention initiatives for 40,000 high school students in 44 of Chicago’s public schools, Vargas said. The program will include a teen outreach program to improve life skills, increase communication and work with the community to establish openness to talk to teens about healthy behaviors.
Vargas didn’t know which schools would get the money but said they would cover 28 of the 77 communities in Chicago that have the highest teen pregnancy rate.
“We can’t reach everyone, this is just a pilot program that will be able to reach more if our experiment is successful,” Vargas said.