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Archive for Thursday, March 14, 1996

TEEN PREGNANCY ON RISE IN KANSAS

March 14, 1996

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Two Lawrence teens find that forging a family of their own isn't easy.

At 14, Sherri Watson made her first dash.

With a "borrowed" car, she and a friend took off for Chicago. They were gone for about a week until they were caught by the police. Shelters and detention centers became her home for the next two years, when she repeatedly ran away.

Josh Bennett was only 13 when he decided he was sick of watching his mother smoke crack and swallow booze and Prozac. He had already spent enough time caring for his younger siblings while his mother slowly destroyed herself. He took off for Georgia to be with his father, and together the two moved around the country from construction job to construction job.

Fate brought the two star-crossed teen-agers together. A year later, their child, Desiree, cemented them together. Together, the two Lawrence 17-year-olds have formed a home of their own; one from which they have chosen not to run.

Combined, they have watched their parents struggle through nine broken marriages. They are determined to be different.

"We related when we met because we'd been through everything," Sherri said. "That's probably why we're both together. We didn't want to be like them."

Looking for love

Teen parents like Sherri and Josh aren't alone, especially in Kansas. Between 1989 and 1994, the state saw about a 5 percent rise in the rate of teen pregnancies, according to state statistics.

The state spends more than $800,000 a year on teen pregnancy programs, said Greg Crawford, representative for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Some of those programs include aggressive prevention and case management in several Kansas counties to help prevent second births.

The Lawrence/Douglas County Health Department is one of the places hosting such programs. In the first year of the local program, the Teen Independence Project, 66 area teens have received assistance with setting goals, raising their child and preventing a second pregnancy, said Nancy Jorn, maternal/infant coordinator at the health department.

Jorn said the health department also has another program that helps educate teen and low-income mothers about their pregnancy and how to take care of their child.

Some experts say the key to preventing teen pregnancy is education. Other experts say education is not enough.

"Despite available education, a lot of these girls are still reaching out to someone who will care about them, so they fall into this trap of getting into serious relationships before they're ready," said Patti McCulley, director of the Parent Child Learning Center at Lawrence High School. "A lot of it's based on insecurity and the way they are raised.

"Everyone says education, education, education, but that doesn't take care of the emotional needs of some of these girls."

McCulley said the teen mothers she sees at the center come from all economic and social backgrounds and share one common trait -- maturity.

"They take this very seriously," McCulley said. "In some cases they are more conscientious about their children than some older parents. They don't look at this as a game or playing with a baby doll. I think because a lot of people have told them they can't do it, they fight hard to prove that they can."

Often the best prevention message goes to the nonparent students who work in the center and see what their classmates go through, McCulley said.

"It's a real reality thing here," McCulley said. "My nonparent students come in here and say, 'I could never do this.' You know that's something on their mind when it's time to get in bed with a boyfriend. They see the stress."

Growing up fast

Five months after Sherri and Josh started dating, Sherri found out she was pregnant. It was a surprise, since the couple said they had been using condoms.

On Jan. 5, a week before her final exams at school, Sherri gave birth to Desiree.

"She started crying, and we both were sitting there looking at each other saying, 'Oh my gosh, we have a baby,'" Sherri said, remembering the couple's reaction at the hospital.

Two weeks later, Sherri went back to high school. Though she already earned her GED, she was determined to graduate with her class and earn a diploma, something neither of her parents accomplished. She traded the 1.833 grade point average she earned in junior high school for a 3.7 GPA last semester. A year from now, she hopes to attend Johnson County Community College.

"I don't think it's hard going to school, but I'm tired a lot," Sherri admits.

Every day Sherri wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and gets herself and Desiree ready before boarding the school bus at 7 a.m. for Lawrence High. Josh leaves for work while they are gone and does not return until Sherri and Desiree have gone to sleep. To keep up with one another, the couple trade letters.

Once at school, Sherri takes Desiree to the Parent/Child Learning Center where she feeds and rocks Desiree to sleep before heading to her literature class.

Sticking together

Josh has traded his irregular construction work for a full-time, $6-per-hour job as a maintenance man. He works as much overtime as he can get to help pay rent at the mobile home he, Sherri and Desiree share with Sherri's father.

The once care-free couple no longer have time to hang out with friends or go to parties. When Sherri isn't at school or taking care of her daughter and home, she's at her part-time job at a local fast-food restaurant. When Josh isn't at work, he's helping Sherri wake up with Desiree every few hours.

"I've calmed down a lot," Josh said. "Instead of thinking, 'Damn, that would be fun,' I think in terms of 'Am I going to get in trouble for this?' I think before I do things."

Friends don't come by as often. The couple can't afford a phone yet.

But the loss of freedom that came with the birth of their daughter has also brought some consistency and stability to the two teens' lives. They even trying to repair once strained relationships with their parents.

Though he was scared of fatherhood at first, Josh said he decided not to run from his responsibilities like some of his peers had.

"You have to take the bad with the good," Josh said. "Nine months is an awful long time to think about something."

He may not know all the secrets of parenting, but Josh does know what he kind of parent he doesn't want to be.

"I don't want to be an alcoholic or addicted to crack," Josh said. "I just want to be there for her. Sometimes she'll cry and cry and give me a headache, but working all the time makes me miss her and want to be with her."

There is plenty to keep the family going, Sherri said.

"During the days when she's awake, it makes me smile," Sherri said. "Sometimes Josh will look at her and say, 'Look at what we made -- a beautiful little girl.'"

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