After a Decade of Decline in Teen Parents, Support Services Brace for Rising Demand

It takes a village

Cathy Smith, case manager with Any Baby Can, who works in the Tandem Teen Prenatal & Parenting Program through People’s Community Clinic (photo by Jana Birchum)

Rocio Villarreal remembers feeling scared and anxious at her first prenatal checkup at People's Community Clinic. Becoming pregnant at 14 was not what she had planned. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm done! This is it!'" said Villarreal.

But as she left her first checkup, she also remembers the feeling of relief. At People's Clinic, Villarreal was introduced to Cathy Smith, a case manager for the Tandem Teen Prenatal & Parenting Program. In that role, Smith works as an advocate for Travis County teen moms like Villarreal – guiding her clients through everything from prenatal care to graduation requirements.

"It really made me feel so much better. It was a very scary time and I needed all the help I could get," said Villarreal, now 33. "If it wasn't for Cathy, who knows what would have happened."

The Tandem program – now in its 25th year – is a collaboration between area nonprofits Any Baby Can, Austin Child Guid­ance Center, LifeWorks, and People's Com­mun­ity Clinic. The interagency program provides prenatal and postpartum medical care, transportation to checkups, mental health support, family planning, parenting education, and intensive, years-long guidance from advocates like Smith. Teen parents enrolled in the program are eligible to participate until their child's third birthday.

Through Austin ISD, teens can also access on-campus day cares and homebound instruction to accommodate parenting students. But for the last decade, the district has seen a steady decline in the number of students getting pregnant. That is, until 2021, when the number jumped following implementation of the six-week abortion ban, Senate Bill 8. Now, with almost all abortions banned in the state, the district and the Tandem program are faced with the likelihood of a spike in demand.

Nonprofits Step Up

Smith, who has been a case manager for the Tandem program for the last 19 years, said she works hard to get to know each client and build a rapport with them so they feel comfortable reaching out for support. "I think the biggest part of my job is being a cheerleader," she said. "Always believing in them and reminding them of their strengths."

Even with Tandem's support, the road wasn't easy for Villarreal. She had to drop out of school to care for her daughter, struggled with postpartum depression and often felt judged by those around her. Today, after earning her GED, Villarreal is the proud parent of three and says she found her calling working with kids as a coordinator for children's ministry programs.

Programs like Tandem offer crucial support for teen parents, who are at higher risk of experiencing the exact challenges Villarreal did: dropping out of school, depression, and social stigmatization. Tandem's success with their clients is part of a larger public health victory around teen pregnancy. In the last two decades, teen birth rates have decreased nationwide.

But those positive gains could be challenged following the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Robin Rosell, who oversees the Tan­dem program, said the recent Supreme Court decision is likely to have an impact. Early evidence suggests it will.

In the first six months of 2021, before Texas' six-week abortion ban had gone into effect, Texans under 20 obtained 2,633 abortions. One year later, with the six-week ban on the books, that number dropped by more than half to 1,220, according to state data from the Texas Health and Human Services Department. For school-aged teens under 18, the number of abortions dropped from about 660 to 260 in the same period.

Although Travis County's teen birth rate has been on the steady decline for the last 15 years, public health experts warn that Austin could see an uptick in teen births as a result of the state's abortion ban. And if that prediction comes to fruition, will Austin be ready to meet the need?

Navarro High School day care center director Kelly Hickman at the day care December 13 (photo by John Anderson)

School Supports

Since peaking in the early 1990s, the United States' teen birth rate has been on a near constant decline. In the last decade alone, the teen birth rate in Texas decreased by half.

"From a public health perspective it is just an extraordinary phenomenon," said Jen Biundo, senior director of policy and research at Healthy Futures of Texas, an advocacy organization focused on reducing unplanned teen pregnancy in the state.

But that doesn't mean there's no cause for concern, he said. Texas has the ninth-highest rate of teen birth in the nation with 22.4 births per 1,000 girls age 15-19. In Travis County, that rate is about 25% lower than that (16.9 per 1,000) but still 10% higher than the national rate.

Also concerning, Travis County has the biggest disparity in the state between His­pan­ic and white teens. In 2020, the birth rate for Hispanic teens was nine times higher than that of white teens – a rate of 32.4 to 3.5 per 1,000.

For teen moms, completing their education while balancing the demands of new motherhood is a major challenge. Decades of research show teen pregnancy is associated with lower levels of educational attainment and lower lifetime earnings. "Staying in school is really hard when you have an infant or a toddler," said Rosell, "it's just hard to totally focus on your academic achievement when you've got this huge adult responsibility."

To accommodate those students, the Texas Education Agency requires that districts offering pregnancy services must provide homebound services to student parents for six weeks post-delivery, but it's largely up to districts to decide what additional support services to provide to pregnant and parenting students. In AISD, parenting students are eligible to receive homebound instruction if they choose not to return to campus. Through that, students get online schooling and a visit from a certified teacher to their home once a week to help them with their studies.

But the district has also made efforts to keep parenting students on campus by providing free child care at district high schools with the highest teen pregnancy rates. According to Rosell, providing free, high-quality day care for teen parents is key to supporting the teen parent's educational attainment. "It's the No. 1 thing that's going to keep a kid in school," said Rosell.

The district had seen a steady decline in the number of students getting pregnant until 2021, when the number jumped following implementation of the abortion ban in Senate Bill 8.

Reflecting back on her own high school experience 20 years ago, Villarreal remembers "feeling like you don't belong once you're pregnant ... If there was some kind of support system at the school that would have changed everything for me. I wouldn't have had to leave school so early and not have that experience that everyone else had."

The district's teen parent program, which is co-funded by the city, was established in the 1990s when the district and the country were facing a much higher teen pregnancy rate. Then, the district offered day care at five high school campuses. Today, the district operates three free child care programs at Garza, Navarro, and Travis high schools.

Kelly Hickman, who directs Navarro's Child Development Center, said support services begin ahead of the baby's birth. Expecting students and parenting students take parent education classes together during the school day. There, they get to know their future child care providers and fellow student parents. "By the time they deliver their baby – and there are so many other things that are going on in their head and going on in life that are hard to figure out – at least that's one known," said Hickman.

Student parents arrive on campus early to check their child into day care. They complete their morning classes, then return to the center during their advisory period to participate in parent education programming. On Wednesdays, the student parents join in storytime with their children, and on Thursdays, the parents and children take part in a music class. They also learn about a wide range of parenting topics, from nutrition to the dynamics of co-parenting. Hickman said that by the time students finish the program, "they will have the skills they need to take care of their baby independently."

"Part of it is graduating," said Steven Covin, principal of Navarro High, "but part of it is providing this service to give them the opportunity to experience what should be a pretty cool time in their life, which is high school."

The district day care program has produced impressive returns. In the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, 100% of seniors using the program graduated from high school. A key to the program's success, according to Covin, is finding the right balance between supporting new parents and still holding those students to high expectations. "You want to make sure that you're showing that grace for a student who has a specific need, while at the same time not letting that be something that becomes an impediment to their learning and helping them understand that."

According to data provided by the district, the graduation rate is significantly lower for parenting students who don't use on-campus child care. During the 2019-20 school year, the rate for that group was 50%. In the following year, it was 67%.

Rosie Coleman, who administers AISD's Teen Parent Program, said some students opt out if they can leave their child at home with a family member or if they want to stay home themselves while using the district's homebound services. And, because the child care programs operate on only three district campuses, teen parents from other high schools face transportation barriers. "A lot of students are able to work it out," said Coleman, "but that's something that we're not able to help with because it is so astronomically expensive if we were to send a school bus for each student."

The good news is that, as is the case nationwide, the rate of student pregnancies within AISD has been on the decline for years. In the 2013-14 school year, the district recorded 291 new pregnancies; in 2020-21, the number was down to 50.

But there's a flip side: A reduced need also means a reduction in services.

Preventing Pregnancies

Public health experts say the decline in the teen birth rate can be largely attributed to an increase in prevention efforts. They also point to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that young people are waiting longer to begin having sex. "Every year there's a delayed start of sexual activity," explained Coleman. "And when they do start, they're utilizing contraception at a higher rate."

According to public health experts, due to these changes in teen behavior, even with restrictions to abortion, teen birth rates are unlikely to return to peaks seen in the Nineties.

Biundo said AISD has historically done a pretty good job providing sex education. While health class is an elective at the high school level under Texas state law, AISD made completion of a health class – which includes sex education instruction – a requirement for graduation.

But a law passed during the 2021 Texas legislative session, requiring that parents opt in to sex education curriculum, could hamper the district's prevention success.

"The concern with opt-in is not over the parents who are actually opposed to [the curriculum] and who actively don't want their child taking sex ed. That's their right. The concern is the parents who just struggle with the paperwork, and whose children miss out on sex ed, just because of red tape," said Biundo. What's more, she said, the parents most likely to struggle with the opt-in requirement are also the parents whose children have the greatest risk factors – those who don't speak English or who earn a low income working long hours.

Rising Birth Rates and the Fall of Roe

Last year, AISD recorded an uptick in teen pregnancies for the first time in a decade, jumping from 50 documented student pregnancies during the 2020-21 school year to 72 in the 2021-22 year, following the implementation of SB 8, which effectively banned abortion after about six weeks gestation by allowing "vigilante" lawsuits.

Coleman said it's certainly possible that the state's ban had an impact on the jump in teen pregnancy, but that more data is needed to understand the full impact. "If we see another increase this year, I think that that would point to it, but I just hate to guess," said Coleman.

And if the teen birth rate does continue to rise, advocates stress that it will be crucial to further invest in and expand school and community resources for teen parents.

Because with intensive community support like that offered through the Tandem program, Villarreal said, "being a teen doesn't mean you can't be a good mom."

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