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Teen pregnancy on the rise

One in four babies delivered at Sentara Obici Hospital is born to a teenaged mother.

That’s the estimate of a hospital official familiar with the operations of the obstetrics department, and it comports with a wider set of recent statistics from the Virginia Department of Health that show Suffolk and parts of the surrounding area to be in worse shape regarding teen pregnancies than the state as a whole. And in Suffolk, the problem is getting worse.

According to the health department, there were 30.8 teenage pregnancies for every 1,000 females in Suffolk in 2008 – higher than the 26.3 commonwealth average and higher than 2007 statistics.

The percentages represent 176 teenage pregnancies in the Suffolk.

While Suffolk’s percentage of births to teen mothers is higher than the commonwealth’s average, the city ranks in the middle of communities in its district. Franklin, Norfolk and Portsmouth have higher averages, while Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Southampton County and Isle of Wight Count are below it.

“We see teen mothers in here quite frequently,” said Mary Williams, who runs labor and delivery at Sentara Obici. “I would estimate about 25 percent of the deliveries we perform are for teenage mothers.”

Six of the pregnancies in Suffolk in 2008 occurred to girls under the age of 15; 49 occurred to girls of ages 15 through 17; and 121 occurred to girls ages of 18 and 19.

“Most the girls we see are between 15 and 18, but we do get the occasional 13-year-old,” Williams said.

Williams said a common factor among all the girls she sees is their fear of the unknown, but supportive families and friends surround most girls.

“One thing that really struck me was that before our flu policy so many of the girls’ friends would come in to view the birth,” Williams said. Hampton Roads hospitals banned children under 18 from visiting during flu season as a way to avoid an outbreak among patients.

In Suffolk, it’s not just teen pregnancies that are ahead of the commonwealth’s rate; the rate of abortions is also higher than the state average. Of the 176 pregnancies, there were 108 live births. Of the 68 deaths, 51 were induced and 17 were natural.

Sentara has a “Healthy Families” program to provide support and education for the new mothers. The program is funded by a grant through the Obici Foundation and teaches girls to embrace their babies and be good mothers at an early age. Employees work with the health department to see every first-time mother, and they follow up with home visits until the child is 5.

“I think the programs we have and following up with the girls gives them resources and maybe makes them think twice before they would do it again,” Williams said. “We also heavily encourage the girls to go back to school — not to let it set them back.”

Each girl who has a baby post-pones an education and often does not resume it. But, the Suffolk Public School system has recognized the odds it’s up against and, officials say they are working to combat the situation.

“A lot of teenage mothers end up dropping out of school,” said Assistant Superintendent Kevin Alston. “At this point in time we don’t have a whole lot of programs, but we are committed to resolving that situation.”

Alston recognizes that many teenage mothers have no one at home to watch the baby or are working to support themselves. The “On-Time Graduation, Dropout Prevention Task Force,” which is includes Alston and principals from Suffolk’s high schools and middle schools, has been evaluating options to encourage teen moms to continue their education. At the top of its list to help teen moms get their diploma are instituting non-traditional hours or setting up online courses.

“This is something we started looking at during the end of last year,” Alston said. “We’re looking for a way to assist them and set up the task force.”

The task force meets next week, and Alston said he hopes the conversation will result in a plan of action.

But all programs require funding and everyone knows the SPS budget is tight.

“I’m hoping it won’t get tied up by budget constraints,” Alston said. “We can do some of things without spending a whole lot of money. This is a priority.”