California teen birth rates have declined to record-low levels, but the central San Joaquin Valley continues to be have some of the highest rates in the state.
In a report released this week, state officials cited programs aimed at preventing pregnancy and no-cost family services for a low teen birth rate of 20.8 in 2014.
Valley teen rates remain stubbornly high, ranging from 38.9 in Kings County to 43.7 in Tulare. Fresno County’s rate is 39.1.
The state adolescent birth rate has declined 10 percent from 2013 and the decline has been 55 percent from the 2000 rate of 46.7, according to the California Department of Public Health. The birth rate is based on births per 1,000 adolescents ages 15-19.
The birth rate also declined for all racial and ethnic groups. Among California Hispanics, the rate declined from 77.3 in 2000 to 31.3, among blacks it fell from 59.1 to 24.6, among whites from 22.3 to 8.4 and among Asians from 15.0 to 3.7.
California and county public health departments strive to reduce teen pregnancy and birth rates because studies show pregnant and mothering teens are less likely to finish high school and higher education.
It definitely remains a huge concern for our county that so many teen mothers are giving births to babies.
Gilda Zarate-Gonzalez, Madera County Public Health Department
And Valley counties have made strides in reducing teen births. Fresno County, for example, has reduced its rate from 42.9 in 2011-13 to 39.1 in 2012-14. The state aggregates county rates over three years.
However, Fresno County has the sixth-highest rate in the state and two counties – Tulare and Madera – rank third and fourth highest. Kings County is ranked seventh. Kern County had the highest rate in the state at 45.1. Marin County had the lowest rate at 7.0.
“It definitely remains a huge concern for our county that so many teen mothers are giving births to babies,” said Gilda Zarate-Gonzalez, deputy public health director of the Madera County Public Health Department.
The rates for Tulare and Madera counties are more than twice the state average, and officials said socio-economic factors, such as poverty, unemployment and educational attainment are barriers to reducing the adolescent birth rate.
“If we don’t address all those socioeconomic factors, we’re never really going to gain significant traction to dramatically reduce those numbers,” Zarate-Gonzalez said.
The county has had some good news: Zarate-Gonzalez has seen a downward trend in teen births. Madera County’s rate fell from 44.9 in 2011-14 to 43.0 in 2012-14.
The same is true for Tulare County, where the birth rate fell from 48.6 to 43.7.
The Madera health department has joined with school districts and community-based organizations to reach out to youth to help them make smarter choices about their lifestyles and make better decisions to delay sexual activity, Zarate-Gonzalez said. And the county has a strong case management program for teen parents, which has reduced the repeat teen pregnancy rate.
Dr. Karen Haught, health officer for Tulare County, said community organizations are working to help adolescents develop leadership and decision-making skills. And community clinics have funding for teen education programs. A new Planned Parenthood clinic also has increased the availability of health services for teens, she said.
“I think we need to focus on our successes,” Haught said. “We can’t suddenly have the same rate as another county, it takes time for things to change.”
California is leading the nation in a decline in unintended pregnancy rates in youths, said Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive justice policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California.
I would have known I could go get birth control on my own without my parents’ consent.
Marinarde Soto, teen mother, on the new mandate for school-based comprehensive sex education classes
The state supports access to programs that provide contraceptives and comprehensive sexual education, Burlingame said. But the Valley is an area still in high need of reproductive health services for youths, she said. “The lack of community resources makes it all the more important that young people be able to access quality school-based sex education.”
A state law that started Jan. 1 requires school districts to provide “comprehensive, accurate and unbiased” sex education at least twice between grades seven and 12. Fresno Unified is among districts in the Valley to adopt such a program. In 2015, a Fresno Superior Court judge ruled that students have a right to learn about sexual health – outside of an abstinence-only approach – after Fresno Unified came under fire for being one of the few districts in California that did not provide the classes. Budget cuts at FUSD in 2011 ended a sociology course that taught some sexual health.
Positive Prevention Plus, the curriculum approved by the board last year, includes lessons on healthy relationships, relationship violence, STD testing and family planning. Positive Prevention is the highest-rated program approved by the California Department of Education. Fresno Barrios Unidos – which operates an after-school program focusing on teen pregnancy prevention – will provide some of the courses.
“The best way to be able to reduce these rates is to provide young people with comprehensive sex education and to assure there is a youth-friendly health care system in place,” said Socorro Santillan, executive director of Barrios Unidos.
Marinarde Soto, 18, of Fresno said a school-based comprehensive sex education class would have given her information she needed. Soto became pregnant at age 15 and has a son.
“I would have known I could go get birth control on my own without my parents’ consent,” Soto said.
Soto graduated from high school and from Teen Success, a program for teen parents offered at Barrios Unidos. She earned a scholarship from the organization and will be attending Fresno State later this month.
The Valley needs more organizations, such as Barrios Unidos, that are youth-friendly, Soto said. “When I did find out I was pregnant, my mom took me to an OB/GYN and it was hard,” she said. “I could feel people staring at me and whispering.”
Fresno needs more school-based health clinics, such as one that opened at Gaston Middle School in southwest Fresno, said Rose Mary Rahn, manager of public health nursing and the maternal-child health director at the Fresno County Department of Public Health.
“I’m not sure if adolescents are accessing reproductive health services in the community if they are not close by,” she said.
Dr. Karen Smith, California’s public health officer, said the state’s continued success in reducing births among adolescents is an excellent example of public health work. “We can have a positive influence on the lives of young people when we empower them with knowledge, tools and resources to make healthy choices.”
Adolescent birth rates 2012-14
San Joaquin Valley counties have some of the highest adolescent birth rates in California.
Percent repeat births
Source: California Department of Public Health