Teen pregnancy is on the rise across the country for the second year in a row, statistics indicate, but local teen pregnancy rates continue to grow faster than the rest of the state and nation.
A report released this week by the National Center for Health Statistics shows the national birthrate among girls ages 15 to 19 increased by 1.4 percent between 2006 and 2007, from 41.9 births per 1,000 females to 42.5. From 2005 to 2006, the birthrate for this age group rose 3.4 percent.
But in Martinsville and Henry County, pregnancy rates in girls younger than 20 rose even more between 2005 to 2007, according to Virginia Department of Health statistics.
In Martinsville, the number of pregnancies per 1,000 females between ages 10 and 19 jumped 40 percent, from 47.5 in 2005 to 66.5 in 2006. In 2007, the latest year for which figures were available, the rate was 70.2 per 1,000.
This was more than two-and-a-half times the statewide rate of pregnancies in this age group, which was 27.2 per 1,000 females in 2007, VDH statistics indicate.
Lack of work in the area may have played a major role in this rise, said Patricia Carter, co-director of For the Children Partners in Prevention.
"With a high rate of unemployment, we also see a high number of unintended pregnancy," Carter said. "Risky behavior follows poverty."
Teen pregnancy rates in Henry County, which has less unemployment than the city, are "a little bit lower, but not that much," Carter said.
Henry County's pregnancy rate climbed from 33.8 per 1,000 females aged 10 to 19 in 2005 to 40.9 in 2006 and 41.2 in 2007, according to VDH figures.
In the city, Carter said, For the Children has been working with Martinsville School Superintendent Scott Kizner "very closely, trying to mobilize public support for funding to implement programs" to address teen pregnancy.
"He's been a real advocate for this," Carter said of Kizner.
"It's a cycle that needs to be broken," Kizner said of the teen pregnancy rate. "That should not be something we accept as a way of life. ... We have to decide as a community if that's going to be an acceptable number."
Martinsville had the second highest rate of teen pregnancies in the state for 2007, behind Greenville, Kizner said. One out of four Martinsville children in 2006 were born to mothers who did not have high school educations, he added.
The city school division has been targeting dropout prevention for teen parents and has had "real success with that," Kizner said.
However, he added, while many of these teenagers are school-aged, teen pregnancy is not a problem that should be shouldered entirely by the schools.
The issue affects the entire community, he said, so "if we're going to address this, it must involve many agencies."
When students drop out of school due to pregnancy, "there are great costs we all bear," he said, leading to "many social and economic problems in our community."
Kizner said teen parents are more likely to be unemployed or have low-paying jobs. Another problem is that babies born to teens are more likely to have low birth weight, he said.
"When a child's born with low birth weight and needs special services, all taxpayers pay for it," he said. "When somebody drops out of school and needs welfare or food stamps, we all pay for it."
Thus, the city school division's approach has been "to mobilize other agencies to provide services for our students in our schools," Kizner said.
The schools have been working with Piedmont Community Services and the Health Department, he said, and they have had preliminary discussions with the health coordinator at The Harvest Foundation.
Counseling is available at the high school, and the local health department has been meeting with school nurses to make sure pregnant teens are getting proper nutrition. Kizner said he hopes to expand these services even more in the next school year.
"One of the challenges for our students is accessing services," Kizner said. "It's often a barrier for our students to have to get to different agencies because they don't have transportation, or the hours ... conflict with the school hours."
On April 1, he said, representatives from the schools and the health department will visit two high school programs run by Roanoke City Schools and hopefully implement them in Martinsville.
Kizner said he would like to open a health center similar to Roanoke's in the fall, which would "provide our students access to information, family planning, counseling and career counseling, all made available where the students are."
He has pushed for offering day care in the schools in the past, but the division was not able to implement it "because of budgetary issues," he said.
The division currently provides classes in the early evenings at the former Druid Hills School for "any student who needs an alternative schedule," he said.
These students not only include teen parents, he said, but students who have to work during the day because their families need the money. This year, 10 to 12 students are enrolled, Kizner said.