By Jennifer Henion
Triplicate staff writer
At least one 13-year-old gives birth in Del Norte County each year and about 30 teen-agers between the ages of 15 and 19 have children.
Those statistics are considered by many local officials to be the good news. Mainly because those numbers were twice as high in 1991 with 72 local babies born to teen-agers.
But with the population of teens expected to skyrocket by 2010 and bad budget times threatening to cut program funding, teen pregnancies are expected to increase again.
"Not only will teen populations and poverty rates be rising, but funding for programs that helped bring the number of births down will be challenged," said Debbie Brooks, a parenting teacher at Sunset High School and director of the Cal-SAFE program which stands for California School-Aged Families Education.
What's worse, say county educators, is that Del Norte's teen birth rate is already higher than the state average.
Getting the number of adolescent pregnancies down to the present numbers, says longtime teen-parent-educator Christie Page, is the result of the successful support programs in Del Norte.
"We really need to keep programs like Cal-SAFE and Cal-Learn going and funded because that's what has driven the rate down," Page said.
Those programs make possible parenting classes and daycare for teen moms and they provide monetary incentives for teen parents as they accumulate education credits and graduate.
Page emphasized that these state-funded programs, run by the county school district, are not just faceless strategies to throw money at a problem.
She has worked at Sunset High for 11 years along with the rest of the staff. She suffers the daily struggles of many of the county's teen moms as they try to continue their education and adjust to a life far different from most teenagers.
"One of our head teachers was a teen parent that graduated from Sunset and came back as a teacher. She was the one who got laid off recently, which was really sad, because she was a role model to the other students because she showed them that it's possible to graduate and get a job even with a baby," Page said.
The staff running the parenting, child-care and coping programs are very much like a supportive family, Page said a support system that most teen parents don't have anywhere else.
Other than giving teen moms and dads the education and health-care support they need, Brooks said there are also strategies in play to discourage teens from getting pregnant in the first place.
Some young girls actually want to get pregnant for a variety of reasons, some simply make poor choices and others are victims of longstanding sexual and emotional abuse.
"So, it's not just one issue or problem that if we tackle it we'll save the whole teen-pregnancy issue," she said.
So, Brooks and the school district take a more general approach to first show seventh- and eighth-grade students how life changes when a teen-ager gets pregnant and must care for a baby full time.
"What adolescents don't internalize is that when you get tired of the baby, you can't put him or her away," said Brooks.
To get that reality across, several volunteer teen moms and dads at Sunset visit local junior-high school health classes.
The "Baby Think it Over" program is also in effect here. In fact, 13- and 14-year-olds may be seen around Del Norte County now with the battery-operated dolls that simulate a baby's crying, wetting and feeding schedule.
All of the programs that have been attributed the success of lowering the teen birth rate are threatened by the state budget crisis, however.
Currently, Gov. Gray Davis is proposing to cut funding for nearly all health and social service programs and shift the cost burden to each county.