For teen mother Krystal Gustina, life is a daily round of anxiety, diaper-changes, late-night hospital visits — and a lot of hope for a better future.
“It’s just a big wake up call that you’ve got to make some quick changes,” Gustina said, “because you don’t want your child to have the same lifestyle that you did.”
Gustina, 19, is among the hundreds of teenagers who give birth each year in Onondaga County. Locally and nationally, the number of teen births is declining. But they continue to put considerable pressure on schools, shelters and the young mothers themselves. In addition, teen births are often a barrier to education and a passageway into a life of poverty, say health experts.
To keep the birth rate declining, teenage girls need more education on sex and birth control, experts suggest.
Federal and state statistics paint this picture of teen pregnancy:
- Nationwide in 2010, teenage girls had 367,752 kids — the fewest reported in 64 years, according to a report released in April by the federal government’s National Center for Health Statistics.
- This brought down the teenage birth rate to an historic low of 34.3 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19.
- In Onondaga County in 2010, teenagers between the ages of 15 to 19 gave birth to 797 babies, according to the New York State Department of Health.
- That’s 91 fewer babies than in 2009.
- It’s also 290 fewer babies than in 1997, when the number of teen births in Onondaga County peaked at 1,087.
The reason for the decline, health advocates suggest, is teenagers are having less sex and using more contraception.
“I think more young people are recognizing that the teen years should be for getting an education, growing up, maybe even possibly having some fun, right?” said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. It’s a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. “It’s not the time to get pregnant, start a family.”
But the problems of teenage pregnancy remain. In the Syracuse City School District, it presents a serious obstacle to staying in school.
During the 2010-11 school year, the district had 100 pregnant students and 94 mothers. This school year, the district has around 80 pregnant students. It expects to reach 100 when classes let out in June, said Debrah Montroy, coordinator for student support services in the district.
And that’s just the students who are still in school. Some girls drop out without telling the district they’re pregnant, Montroy said, making it difficult to keep track of pregnant dropouts. Other girls are in denial and don’t tell anyone about their babies until seven months into pregnancy, Montroy said.
“Most of the girls were saying that they were afraid to tell their parents, afraid to tell their mothers — mainly the feelings of shame,” Montroy said.
To alleviate the problem, the district runs focus groups for pregnant students in four high schools: Henninger, Corcoran, Fowler and Nottingham. The groups, started this school year, allow girls to talk about their struggles with pregnancy.
The district also works closely with the Onondaga County Health Department. Through the Family Life Team program, the county provides a nurse or case manager to any district student who is pregnant or parenting. Right now, it’s serving 90 students.
The program illustrates how teenage mothers sometimes become trapped in a life of poverty — or, as health advocates call it, “generational poverty.”
That occurs when teen mothers grow up in homes where their mothers also gave birth as teenagers. This makes young women think their only option is to have kids at a young age, said Susan Serrao, Onondaga County’s director of Healthy Families. It is a collection of programs that help women deal with pregnancy or parenting.
When teen mothers believe they have limited chances to go beyond high school, Serrao said, they often have more than one baby. “It’s very difficult to pull yourself out of poverty when you’ve got three, four kids,” Serrao said.
The most powerful pregnancy-prevention tool, experts say, is rather simple: education. Many teenagers remain misinformed about sex and birth control, federal studies show.
For example, some teenagers fail to realize they can get pregnant even when they have sex without birth control, an analysis released in January by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. Of the 50 percent of teens who didn’t use birth control in that analysis, 31 percent didn’t think they could get pregnant.
“A lot of it comes down to lack of education, lack of knowledge: ‘I believed I couldn’t get pregnant because of this,’” said Deidre Keefe, a health education specialist with Reach CNY. The nonprofit in Syracuse works to reduce teen pregnancies and receives some of its funding from the state health department.
Nationally, the federal government has spent millions to stop teenage pregnancy. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave $155 million in grants to states, universities and organizations for teenage pregnancy prevention. Nearly $11.9 million went to prevention programs and cities in the state of New York — the nearest one to Syracuse being the city of Rochester.
In Syracuse itself, teen mothers continue to put pressure on nonprofit agencies.
A total of 24 girls between the ages of 16 and 21 live at the Salvation Army’s Transitional Apartments and Parenting Center. It provides housing to homeless teen moms. Nineteen of the girls — or 79 percent — have kids. Most come from dysfunctional homes, said Sarah Roche, an aid educator who works with young parents at the center.
The center has strict rules to keep teen mothers focused. For example, the girls have a curfew of 11:30 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays. They must have a job. If they don’t, they must prove they are actively searching for one, Roche said. They also must attend classes that teach parenting skills. No TV watching, either.
Many girls feel overwhelmed by the center’s demands, Roche said, but most want to succeed as young mothers. “They’ve been forced to grow up, and they kind of wear their heart on their sleeves for that matter,” Roche said. “They fight for everything they’ve got.”
Teen mother Krystal Gustina, who lives at the center, fought off drugs, alcohol and the influences of her boyfriend to help her baby.
Before getting pregnant, Gustina recalled, she used almost every drug she could get her hands on: Heroine. Cocaine. Marijuana. Ecstasy. Gustina’s boyfriend — and eventual father to her child — often provided the drugs.
“I was just sick of my life,” Gustina said. “So that’s what I used to socialize.”
Then at the age of 18, Gustina got pregnant. She checked into drug counseling and behavioral therapy. She lived with her boyfriend early on in the pregnancy but juggled most of the responsibility, she said. On some nights, Gustina waited for her boyfriend to come home at midnight like he had promised. He never showed.
In August 2011, Gustina gave birth to her son, Mason. He is now 8 months old. Raising him hasn’t come easy. Gustina takes medication for anxiety. She walks Mason 45 minutes each way to doctor’s appointments. On nights when Mason wakes up sick, Gustina has to take him to the hospital. It feels like her brain is moving a mile per minute, she said, even when she’s relaxing.
“Sometimes I just think that I should have waited or wish I would have waited” to have the baby, Gustina said. “But then again, I don’t know where my life would be. I don’t know if I would be drug-free.”
(Michael Boren is a senior in newspaper and online journalism.)