Wednesday, March 21, 2007

If only teen pregnancy was as easy as more birth control
March 16, 2007

I’m rooting for Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, and for anyone else who sets out to address the way we care for the 10,000 children in government care.
But the first challenge is to start thinking differently about the problem. And that means letting go of preconceived notions - like the one about how teen pregnancy will be solved with sex education and birth control.
As the province’s new representative for children and youth, Turpel-Lafond has the opportunity to do some powerful work over the next five years on behalf of the tragic figures caught up in B.C.’s troubled family-care system. And she’s right that it’s a heck of an indicator when girls in care in our province are four times more likely to get pregnant than other girls.
I just hope she goes deeper into that issue than her musings last week around whether children in care were getting enough sex education and birth control. If only it were that simple.
Sure, girls in care probably don’t get enough of either of those. But all the sex ed and birth control in the world can’t get to the heart of the complicated reasons for teenage pregnancy.
The question is simple enough: Why would modern-day North American girls continue to get pregnant in these sexually saturated, birth-controlled times? Perhaps because the underlying reason has nothing to do with knowing how to prevent a pregnancy.
Teenagers have, of course, always gotten pregnant. As a teenage mom myself, I can’t help but bristle at the popular notion that nothing good comes from early motherhood.
What has changed since my time, however, is an end to societal expectations that young men should take some responsibility for that.
Nowadays, girls are pretty much on their own. Modern teen pregnancy has thus become synonymous with poverty, failure and struggle. But virtually all of us have teenage mothers in our own family backgrounds from the days when it was accepted and supported.
So part of what has to happen is just plain old support. If boys are no longer to be held to any expectation around support for the girls they get pregnant, then somebody else has to help make that happen.
On some theoretical level, I think that’s supposed to be government’s job, but I’ve seen little evidence of that to this point. While pregnant girls from financially stable families do OK under the new world order, girls from struggling, marginal families - or worse, from the shattered world of government care - can barely catch a break in these mean times.
It’s within our reach to do something about that virtually immediately, and we ought to. Nothing good comes from leaving pregnant girls and women to scratch by on a $500 welfare cheque. If we’re serious about doing something to slow the rising tide of broken people in our communities, one of the most vital populations to care for is pregnant women.
But teenage pregnancy is also about hope, and it’s that truth that I suspect will pose the biggest challenges in reducing high pregnancy rates among girls in care.
For those girls, getting pregnant is about creating somebody to love them just as they are. It’s about the dream of what it would feel like to have a family - something that many will have barely experienced. It’s about a new tomorrow, in a different and happier life.
Pregnancy for a kid growing up in struggling circumstance rarely turns out as happy as that, of course. But that’s where a girl’s heart leads her sometimes when there’s nothing else to hold onto. Preventing her pregnancy as a teenager is really about helping her feel loved, connected and supported as a child.
Trying to accomplish that under the current system of care in B.C. would be a monumental task, but hardly an unfamiliar one.
After all, tens of thousands of healthy families out there know exactly what it takes to ensure their own children don’t end up as single moms on a welfare cheque. Fewer girls in care will get pregnant when the system more closely models the attributes of a real family - not an easy transformation.
But here’s the good news: We’re doing things so poorly now, there’s nowhere to go but up. With Turpel-Lafond’s recent appointment, we have an opportunity to open up a conversation with the children and families entangled in our care system and figure out how to do it better.
It needn’t be an impossible undertaking. Every day, in every community in Canada, people are capably raising their children into healthy adulthood.
Surely it’s within our ability to design a system that recreates those same family models for struggling families and their children, building trust between child welfare workers and families rather than pitting them against each other.
So yes, let’s get those poor kids in care some more birth control. But first let’s try to give them a real family.

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