Hispanic Teen Pregnancy: Proof that Health Disparities Impact Lives
Though several months have passed since completing my fellowship project on Hispanic teen pregnancy in Connecticut, the pictures of the youngsters I met along the way dominate the bulletin board in my office.
I look at their faces and wonder: Will Alondra really make it through high school without getting pregnant? Did Yanisha find someone to care for her son so she could return to ninth grade? Will their friends survive the domestic violence and threat of rape? Do they even stand a chance given the inequities that are beyond their control?
The plight of Hispanic teens at risk of becoming young parents illustrates how social determinants – poverty, employment, educational attainment, housing, the environment and safety – affect the physical and mental health of a community. Nearly half of all teen pregnancies in Connecticut are to Hispanics, the group most likely to face poverty, unemployment, violence and educational gaps in the state.
The Connecticut Health Investigative Team (C-HIT), a website focusing on health and safety, chose to focus on Hispanic teen pregnancy as a public health issue that threatened another generation of youth and jeopardized the state's fiscal health. Speakers at the weeklong fellowship program heightened my awareness of how social factors impact health. But seeing the connections up close as I met with at-risk youth and teen parents was revealing and disturbing.
Our fellowship project earned praise from state, health and social service agency officials who plan to use the data to bolster future grant requests to tackle teen pregnancy. WNPR, part of the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, aired a companion piece. The Hartford Courant, the state's leading newspaper, published an editorial calling on the state to focus more attention and resources on the issue. Our numerous online and print media partners – including La Voz Hispana, which published the piece in Spanish – embraced the project.
But the report also drew scorn from some Connecticut residents whose racist and caustic observations illustrated the difficulties and prejudices we face as a society to correct health disparities that are destroying lives and eroding quality of life.
Among the challenges was finding a teenage mother, preferably one who came from a family with a history of children bearing children, willing to have her name published. Attempts to connect with pregnant teens by contacting school districts, hospitals, health clinics and social service agencies – all entities that work with pregnant and at-risk youth – proved frustrating. Many officials were protective of teen parents and refused to cooperate; others never called back; some made arrangements to meet teen parents who never materialized.
C-HIT editor Lynne DeLucia and fellowship advisor Patrick Boyle suggested I bypass these organizations and try connecting with pregnant teens directly by attending community events that drew Hispanics or approaching the teens that often gather at the New Haven Green. Their advice was a reminder that sometimes you need to take an untraditional approach or bend the rules to reach your goals.
That's when my luck started turning around.
After weeks of having messages ignored by New Haven school officials, one supervisor called back to say that no one would speak with me unless I got permission from the school district's director of communications. I knew the communications director would not cooperate. Then came the call from the director of the Elizabeth Celotto Child Care Center at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, who agreed to meet with me the next day. I knew I wasn't supposed to be at the school without permission from the communications director, but I also suspected that if I called to ask for permission, he would likely decline. I never made the call and drove an hour the next day to be at the child care center by 6 am.
The next big break was connecting with Candida Flores, executive director of Family Life Education in Hartford. Flores was not only interested in helping me find a teenage mother to interview, she was also willing to speak about her own experiences as a teenage mom who had four children by the age of 20 with an abusive husband. Flores was a perfect subject for our "First Person" podcast. Her story also fit a recurring sentiment by those interviewed – that former teenage mothers needed to step out of the shadows and share their experiences with teens. Flores was a reminder that as a journalist you need to be persistent and patient because all you need is one cooperative person to get things rolling.
I literally jumped for joy when I got the call from Flores that Yanisha, a 15-year-old girl with a three-week-old baby, was willing to speak with me. The added bonus: Yanisha's mother was a former teenage mom. After months of searching, I had finally found a teen mom willing to go on the record whose family illustrated the endless cycle of children bearing children! Then I felt shame because my good fortune as a journalist was at the expense of this terrified young girl.
I started thinking about my upcoming visit with Yanisha and whether it was appropriate to arrive with a gift. As a first-generation Cuban-American, I grew up in a culture that celebrated the birth of a baby and supported the mother, no matter how the child was conceived. Would a gift be perceived as a bribe or compromise my journalistic integrity? In the end, I chose to embrace my cultural upbringing and I arrived at the home with gifts: two jumbo packs of diapers, a denim outfit for the baby, and a scarf for Yanisha. It was the right thing to do.
Attempts to demonstrate that teen pregnancy was a concern in suburban and rural communities, as well as urban centers, proved challenging, too. Small town school, city and health officials didn't want to talk. Then I remembered Magali Kupfer, executive director of Casa Boricua in Meriden. I met Kupfer 30 years ago when I covered social services at the Meriden Record Journal (as their first female reporter). Kupfer was a straight-talking, compassionate community advocate who became an important source for the many stories I wrote about the plight of Meriden's Hispanic community. Could she possibly still be at Casa Boricua?
Imagine my surprise when I called Casa Boricua and Kupfer – now 72 and still the executive director – answered the phone! She hadn't changed one bit, eager to talk about issues (teen pregnancy, domestic violence, machismo) that others ignored. She provided what I consider the most chilling quote in the project when addressing Hispanic teen pregnancy in small towns: "Nobody wants to talk about it. Girls disappear from school and then you see them a few months later pushing a baby stroller down the street." That said it all.
Even public health officials, who I thought would welcome our project, were hesitant to discuss Hispanic teen pregnancy in depth. For example, officials at the Connecticut Department of Public Health were reluctant to breakdown the data for Hispanic teen pregnancies among 13- and 14-year-old girls. They felt overall teen pregnancy statistics for 13- to 19-year-olds should suffice. It took a while for them to understand that I was looking for data to support a common sentiment among those interviewed that cultural nuances were placing Hispanic 13- and 14-year old girls at great risk of entering into inappropriate relationships with older partners. The data showed that more than half of the teen births to girls in this age group were to Hispanics.
Although I can't personally impact the lives of the many teens I met during this fellowship project, the experience has inspired me to devote more time and effort to writing about health disparities. Stories in the works for C-HIT include a piece on the Health Equity Index which is redefining the way we approach public health and the incidence of high infant mortality rates among African Americans compared to their white and Hispanic counterparts.
I'm grateful to the folks at the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship for helping me to broaden my perspective as a journalist and find story ideas in places I never imagined.