City forms council to combat teen pregnancy

Teen pregnancy is on the decline in New Haven and nationwide, but with 275 teen births in the city in 2006 and no universal comprehensive health education program in public schools, the city is looking to push that number even lower through new education initiatives.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. announced Monday the formation of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Council. The council will implement the recommendations of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force, which DeStefano appointed 18 months ago, by looking to increase comprehensive sex education and access to contraception in public schools. The task force released a report in August recommending this expansion along with updates in the city’s approach.

Council member Maria Damiani, the director of New Haven’s Women’s Health Department, said the council plans to focus efforts not only on teenage girls but also on groups not normally targeted by pregnancy-prevention programs, such as young men and parents, both those with teenage children and those who are teenagers themselves.

“Thanks to great work by our community partners, we’ve seen progress in reducing overall teen-pregnancy rates in New Haven,” DeStefano said in a statement released Monday. “But there’s still more to be done.”

In 2003, New Haven recorded 134 births per 1,000 girls ages 13-19, the lowest number for any of Connecticut’s five largest cities but almost double the state and national rates, according to the task force’s report.

Yale School of Nursing professor Alison Moriarty, the co-chair of the council, said that although this figure has continued to decrease since 2003, there has recently been a slight bump in the city’s teen birth rate. She said the formation of the task force and council represents a proactive, not reactive, approach to the current situation.

“In general, New Haven is doing pretty well in comparison to other cities in Connecticut,” Moriarty said. “The task force was able to look at what resources we had and how we could expand on those.”

The council, which is made up of city officials and representatives of community groups and eventually will also include several teen parents, will collaborate with different governmental and non-governmental groups, Damiani said. One of the council’s most pressing goals, council members said, is to help the Board of Education develop a comprehensive health curriculum for New Haven high schools and procure funding and teacher training to support it.

“It would be great if every entering freshman into high school could get an extensive comprehensive health curriculum,” Damiani said. “It’s not an easy thing to do, to add all that to the curriculum, but we are working very, very hard to see if we can do it.”

Council members said there exist several city-sponsored and outside health-education programs aimed at high school students, but a lack of funding has prevented the city from implemented a centralized program since the 1990s.

The city has enlisted Yale’s Community Health Educators program — which teaches health education in New Haven middle and high schools — to brainstorm ways to update the city’s 1990s-era curriculum and implement it on a citywide scale.

The Community Health Educators’ Healthy Sexuality workshop leader Colin Adamo ’10 said the program’s eight years of “on-the-ground” experience will help make the outdated Board of Education curriculum more relevant to its audience. He said his experience teaching girls at the Polly T. McCabe Center, New Haven’s high school for pregnant teens and teen mothers, has convinced him that the city has a lot of work to do in providing basic health information.

“These were girls who either had a child or [were] pregnant, and they were clearly unsure where a baby comes from,” Adamo said. “These girls’ entire lives changed because they didn’t have the information.”

Council members also said they hope to increase the availability of contraceptives and counseling in the school-based health centers in several of the city’s high schools, a step Susan Yolen, vice president for public affairs and communication at Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, said she thinks will prove effective.

“Generally speaking, teen pregnancy decreased in Connecticut and nationwide over last 15 years or so,” Yolen said. “What has changed is that teens know where to go and how to access birth control.”

Enhancing access to this information and contraception in schools will perpetuate this success, she said.

Yolen said she finds the council’s expansive vision an encouraging sign of increased community awareness.

“I think it is important for the community to come to a meeting of the minds on this issue,” she said. “It speaks volumes about where it could go next.”

The council is also a partner of “Real Life Real Talk” — a local initiative launching next week that will teach parents how to facilitate dialogue with their children about health issues — and “The Nurturing Families Network,” a group that provides support to new young mothers through educational home visits.

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