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NC City Unites to Fight Teen-Age Pregnancy

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Charlotte, N.C.--As the federal government released sobering statistics last week on the dramatic rise in out-of-wedlock births, school officials meeting here learned of one community's efforts to combat the problem of children having children.

'Community Problem'

"So many times all this falls on the schools or the church or the home," Linda Sloan, a Charlotte health educator, told members of the National Association of Pupil Personnel Administrators. "It's a community problem."

So far, that conviction seems to be paying off for the fledgling Mecklenburg Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, a cooperative project of the March of Dimes, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County public schools, and the Parent-Teacher Association.

In its first year and a half, the council has enlisted the help of businesses, pro-life groups, pro-choice organizations, churches, government agencies, neighborhood organizations, and students in a campaign to educate the public about adolescent pregnancies and the attendant problems.

Those problems are legion--and increasing in severity, according to recent national statistics presented by Ms. Sloan:

In 1979, according to one study, nearly 50 percent of all girls aged 15 to 19 were sexually active, and more than 32 percent were or had been pregnant.

Most teen-age girls who drop out of school do so because of pregnancy. About 80 percent of pregnant girls under the age of 17 quit school.

Pregnant girls are 10 times as likely as other teen-agers to commit suicide.

Ten to 15 years ago, 90 percent of teen-age6mothers gave their children up for adoption.

Now, 94 percent keep their babies.

Teen-age mothers, according to one study, are 100 times as likely as the general population to be abusive or neglectful of their children.

And just last week, the Census Bureau released figures showing that births to unmarried women have increased by 50 percent in the past decade and that one-sixth of all babies born in 1979 were born to unmarried women.

It is too early, Ms. Sloan cautioned, to tell whether the Charlotte project has actually reduced the incidence of teen-age pregnancies. But so far, she said, the public response indicates a growing awareness of the problem and a resolve to reach young people.

"The thing we have problems with as professionals is that the only people we ever talk to are people just like ourselves," said Ms. Sloan, coordinator of health education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Finally, we just backed up and looked at the children themselves and asked who influences them."

The answers the children gave, she said, were: parents, schools, peers, the media, churches, business and political leaders, and medical professionals. The council has seen to it that each group is represented.

Unaware of Problem's Severity

The effort began last year with a conference detailing the problem for 300 selected "community leaders," many of whom, Ms. Sloan said, were unaware of its severity.

"They'd say, 'This is North Carolina. This is the Bible Belt. We don't have that problem here,"' she recalled.

The statistics convinced skeptics to take another look, she said. Last year, several Char

lotte women aged 18 and 19 gave birth for the fifth time. Some 200 to 300 other teen-age girls in the county were recorded as having had babies, but they could not be traced to any of the schools, public or private. Apparently they had joined the large numbers of girls who quit school because they are pregnant.

One of the council's most impressive efforts so far has been a financial analysis prepared with the help of several local businesses. In Mecklenburg County alone, the report estimates, the births to adolescents in 1979 eventually will cost the public more than $16.8 million in medical services and welfare.

The group has published a directory of agencies where young people can get help; conducted workshops for parents on adolescent sexuality; and sponsored a "film festival" on sexuality and decision-making for teen-agers (which, to the surprise and delight of the sponsors, attracted a large male audience). A telephone hotline and referral service, to be staffed by teen-agers, is scheduled to begin operation this year.

Recommends Abstinence

And the council has successfully headed off challenges from fundamentalist and conservative forces, Ms. Sloan said. "Our first recommended level of prevention is abstinence, and nobody objects to that," she said. Furthermore, council representatives discussed the project early on with several fundamentalist ministers. "Although none of them jumped on the bandwagon, they did not fight us," she said. "That's all we could ask for."

Added Barbara Ziegler, executive director of the council: "We've been able to pull together a lot of groups that have never been able to sit down and talk to each other before."

For more information, write to the Mecklenburg Council on Adolescent Pregnancy, P.O. Box 35009, Charlotte, N.C. 28235.

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