Fighting teen pregnancy in Minnesota

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Nine Hennepin and Ramsey County organizations will have some extra help fighting teen pregnancy in 2012, thanks to grants announced in December by the Ripley Memorial Foundation.  The foundation has awarded a total of $59,500 to metro-area programs aimed at reducing teen birth rates in at-risk communities.

While Minnesota has one of the lowest overall teen birth rates in the nation, the numbers are less encouraging for teens of color.  According to a recent report from Teenwise Minnesota, the 2009 birth rate for white teens in Minnesota was about ten percent lower than for white teens nationwide, but birth rates for black, Native American, Latina, and Asian teens in Minnesota all exceeded the national averages for their respective categories.

Katherine Meerse, board president of Teenwise Minnesota, a non-profit devoted to promoting science-based pregnancy prevention programs, said there’s no single explanation for these numbers, but pointed out that these disparities reflect other race-based inequalities in Minnesota.

“I think it’s complicated, and when you look at other issues—whether poverty rates, dropout rates, or other types of health issues—you see similar types of disparities.”

Reports from Teenwise Minnesota show that teen birth rates for Latino youth in Minnesota increased by 23.7 percent between 1990 and 2004, while birth rates for other groups decreased overall during the same period. With a birth rate of 80.7 per thousand in 2009, more than five times that of white teens, Latino teens have the second highest birth rate of any ethnic group in Minnesota (Native American teens have the highest.)

“Teens can feel lost. Their parents are busy pursuing their ‘American Dream,’ sometimes working two or three jobs,” said Roxana Linares, executive director of Centro, a Minneapolis-based social service organization serving Latinos. Linares said this loss of time with parents and the challenges of adjusting to a new place can make it harder for messages about sexual health to reach Latino teens in Minnesota.

Centro’s Raíces program offers Latino teens a chance to strengthen family relationships and cultural ties, with special attention on pregnancy prevention and sexual health. The program has received Ripley Memorial Foundation grants in past years, and was awarded $7,000 to continue its work in 2012. The program’s lessons in art and folkloric dance give youth a chance to explore cultural identity while gaining confidence, and program participants talk about Latinos in the media and identifying positive role models who share their cultural background.

Raíces also offers parents and teens the space and tools to communicate better about difficult topics, and despite busy schedules, youth and parents find time to connect at Centro, said Linares.

“We have a very good and committed group of parents,” said Linares. “We’ve found that if you provide the space, they will come.”

Planned Parenthood received $7,000 from the Ripley Memorial Foundation this year to support two programs serving youth from Hmong and African immigrant communities. The Hmong STAR and Youth Power programs train teens to become peer educators, who in turn must reach out to at least thirty other peers to share what they’ve learned and lead conversations about sexual health and teen pregnancy.

According to Meerse of Teenwise, research has shown peer education programs like Hmong STAR and Youth Power to be particularly helpful for the teens who serve as educators. She noted that teens are more tuned in to the rumors, myths, and misunderstandings their peers hold about sex than adults, so they’re better equipped to serve as “mythbusters” about common misconceptions.

Frederick Ndip, who oversees the Youth Power program, said teens from African immigrant backgrounds can feel trapped between two very different cultures and sets of values. Their families may have strict attitudes toward sex, he said, “but in mainstream American culture, sex is cool.” Ndip said Youth Power tries to bridge that gap by identifying cultural leaders who are knowledgeable about both worlds—a sex educator or nurse who is African born, for instance — and inviting them to speak to the teens. The program encourages parent participation, and Ndip said he hopes the program will be able to send more staff into homes in order to reach and educate parents.

Laura Vang, coordinator for the Hmong STAR program, also emphasized the importance of seeking out cultural leaders and engaging parents. She said Hmong elders have spoken to the teens about how pregnancy can be a barrier to reaching their goals and the consequences an early pregnancy could have on their home lives. Vang said that feedback the program has received, from both parents and teens, indicates a desire to talk more openly to one another about sex.

Asian teen birth rates in Minnesota are nearly triple the national average for Asian-American adolescents, but a lack of data makes it hard to track specific groups like the Hmong on a national or state level. Vern Xiong of Lao Family Community in St. Paul, which was awarded a $7,000  Ripley grant to support its Kev Xaiv (Making Choices) program in 2012, said that over the next year, Lao Family Community would like to find a way to follow up with families served by the program in the last two to three years, as well as conduct some research on teen pregnancy in the local Hmong community.  Xiong has observed changes within the Hmong community in recent years that may point to a decrease in teen births.

“Hmong have come a long way in regards with cultural norms when considering marriage and dating in the past couple decades,” Xiong wrote in an e-mail. “Just 10 years ago, you still heard of many examples of teens marrying very young in high school, and a few cases even younger.  When you heard about it, it didn’t surprise anyone.  Today, there is a different attitude about it now; it’s considered wrong now.”

Ripley Memorial Foundation board president Mari Oyanagi Eggum said grantees are asked to provide a report at the end of each year’s grant period in December, and organizations that prove particularly effective may receive long-term support to continue their programs.

About half of this year’s Ripley grants will go to support programs serving youth from immigrant and minority communities. A December 8 press release from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, which has overseen the Ripley fund since 2009, named recipients for the 2012 grant period.  Site visit evaluations, cost effectiveness, and use of proven teen pregnancy prevention programs were among the criteria used to pick this year’s recipients, said Mari Oyanagi Eggum, president of the fund’s board of advisors.