By RAY LONG and PEGGY BOYER
Whatever happened to my teen-age dreams
(These are lyrics from the copyrighted composition, "Parents Too Soon," by Troy Beaver, a high school student from Minonk and the December 1989 winner of the Parents Too Soon Rock 'n' Romance song contest.)
Eighteen-year-old Leticia Saucedo collapsed on top of her newborn daughter. The infant suffocated in a plastic bag; Leticia bled to death from the childbirth about two hours later. They had been found surrounded by bloodied towels and sanitary napkins in the bathroom of an apartment that Leticia shared with her own mother. In fact, Leticia's mother reportedly didn't even know about the pregnancy.
No one will know, for sure, why Leticia stuck her tiny 7 1/2-pound, 20 1/2-inch daughter into the plastic bag. One theory is that the 150-pound Leticia, who had explained her growing girth as simple weight gain, wanted to hide the baby. The reason matters little now. But these double deaths are not just footnotes from big cities like Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. Leticia and her baby died in downstate Normal.
"It is an extreme example of the tragedy of teen pregnancy," said Linda Miller, director of the state's Parents Too Soon program. To be sure, teen pregnancy is a problem statewide. While the sheer numbers in big cities grab the headlines, the percentage of live births to teen-agers is greater in several downstate counties. In the city of Chicago, for example. 18.8 percent of the live births were mothered by teens. While that percentage is high, it pales in comparison to the 33.1 percent in Pulaski County, more than 300 miles south of Chicago's inner city.
Statewide, records showed there were 23,269 births to women under the age of 20 during 1988 out of a total of 184,708 births. Of the teens who gave birth, 18,387 were unmarried. The number of births to unwed teen mothers has shown an increase, up 14.6 percent in 1988 compared to 1987. Perhaps the state can take solace in one statistic: Despite 776 more births to teens between 1987 and 1988 in Illinois, as a percentage of all births, they remained constant at 12.5 percent.
To deal with the state's teen pregnancy crisis, Gov. James R. Thompson launched Parents Too Soon seven years ago. The $19.1 million program, which has won a Ford Foundation award for innovation, is a coordinated effort of the Illinois departments of Public Health, Public Aid, and Children and Family Services. "You've got to do your best to prevent teen pregnancy," said Gov. Thompson, the former National Governors' Association chairman of its Task Force on Teenage Pregnancy. "And you've got to do your best, when it occurs, to make sure the mother and child stay healthy." It is a theme Thompson has stressed before. In the inaugural address of his fourth term, Thompson said: "If we lose the child, we lose the adult . . . to mental institutions, penitentiaries, crime, poverty and ignorance."
The link between poverty and teen pregnancy spurred the state to zero in on economically distressed areas, including the state's seven southernmost counties. Sharon Stover, project director for the teen pregnancy program at the Southern Seven Health Department, said adolescents need to feel they will have a chance to achieve long-term personal goals. Left without the hope of getting a job or going to college, she said, teens are more likely to believe that having a baby is their only measure of success. "We're in an area where a lot of girls get pregnant." Stover said. "And, when it's more common, it's more accepted. There isn't as much social stigma against it."
'If we lose the child, we lose the adult ... to mental institutions, penitentiaries, crime, poverty and ignorance'
Even so, officials throughout Illinois are helping teens learn to set alternative goals and find paths for reaching them. The Southern Seven program, for example, tries to prevent young pregnancies by providing family life programs in junior high and high schools. "Sometimes there are not enough reasons not to become pregnant." Stover added. In those southern seven counties the annual number of births to teens has declined by 27 percent since 1984. In East St. Louis Emma Rose, coordinator of the Parenting For Success Program, said the program there is aimed at helping teen mothers develop goals other than having a second, third or fourth child before age 20. Too often,
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Miller added, the children of teen mothers have children who fall into the same cycle of teen-age motherhood and poverty. Between 60 and 70 percent of the recent welfare caseload either are now, or were, teens when they started bearing children, Miller said.
Elsewhere, community efforts also are underway. Parents Too Soon takes part in 125 community-based health and social service agencies. In Rockford, for example, a Parents Too Soon program took credit for a 5 percent decline in teen births between 1987 and 1988. In Peoria, where the annual 18.8 percent of births to teen mothers is the same as in the city of Chicago, fifth-grade school teacher Linda Hearn is recharging community discussions aimed at searching for teen pregnancy solutions. That city's firstborn babies during the last two New Year's Days have been to teen mothers. In Saline County, Eldorado High School, where enrollment is less than 400, has started a child care center with six babies whose mothers are students.
Another line of attack getting more attention is the effort to teach males to accept more responsibility. "There has to be much more emphasis on male responsibility for teen-age pregnancies," Gov. Thompson said. "All the focus has been on the women, and I think that's too narrow of a focus."
Each day, on average, 32 calls come into the Parents Too Soon hotline at 1-800-4-CALL-US. Mostly they come from girls who finally mustered the courage or had no where else to turn. No one knows how many of those conversations with counselors will save young and frightened mothers and babies like Leticia and her daughter.
Ray Long is a Statehouse correspondent for the Peoria Journal Star Peggy Boyer is Statehouse bureau chief for Sangamon State University's WSSU-FM, the anchor station of the Illinois, Public Radio Network.
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