Teen birth rates in Kansas
Top counties in state for total number of teen births or highest rates:
County / Rate* / Total Births
Brown 41.3 27
Butler 24.6 111
Douglas 14.3 120
Elk 49.1 8
Finney 43.1 155
Ford 43.5 107
Geary 50 107
Hamilton 62.1 11
Johnson 15.2 530
Kearny 46.7 14
Leavenworth 26 131
Reno 30.7 118
Saline 40.8 137
Sedgwick 34.1 1139
Seward 59.3 106
Shawnee 30.7 333
Stanton 85.5 13
Wyandotte 54.5 589
- Rate is per 1,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19.
Source: Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 2008 Annual Summary of Vital Statistics
In-between bathing, feeding and diapering their 4-month-old son, Matt Ryan and Amber Criss had to find time to finish their physics homework one evening last week.
About a year ago, the thought of Robert, an easy-going baby with deep blue eyes who coos and blows bubbles, was something of a shock to the high school couple.
“You are scared. You don’t know what to do or how to tell your parents,” said Criss, who moved into her boyfriend’s home shortly before giving birth.
“I thought my life was over,” Ryan said.
As it turns out, it wasn’t. And, as many parents have discovered, the first four months are full of surprises.
“I wasn’t as horrible at it as I kind of thought I would be,” Ryan said, and then looked down to smile at his son. “I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, but it just kind of comes naturally.”
That’s not to say life hasn’t changed for the 17-year-old Lawrence High School seniors.
“We had to grow up. We couldn’t be as immature as a lot of kids,” said Criss, who delivered Robert in June.
Teen pregnancy rates rising
Like Criss, more teenage girls across the country are having babies. After years of steadily falling, the birth rate among Kansas teens and teens in the rest of the nation is starting to rise. However, programs in Lawrence haven’t seen an increase.
In 2007 in the United States, for girls between the ages of 15 and 19, the birth rate was 42.5 out of 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was a 5 percent increase from 2005. In Kansas, the birth rate climbed by 12 percent from 2004 to 2008, to a rate of 45.6.
One of the nation’s biggest success stories had been a reduction in the teen pregnancy rate in the past two decades, said Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
The reversal of that trend is worrisome, he said.
“It may be a wake-up call to parents, to practitioners, to policymakers and others that this continues to be an important problem that needs attention, resources and effort,” he said.
The wake-up call
In the 1990s, two trends were occurring that resulted in a 34 percent drop of the teen birth rate. Teens reported having less sex. And those who were having sex were more likely to use contraception.
“That magic formula has been turned on its head,” Albert said.
Part of the reason could be that teenagers perceive AIDS and STDs as less of a risk than their counterparts did more than a decade ago.
“The perceptions is that (HIV) is no longer a death sentence. Less concern translates into less condom use,” said Laura Lindberg, with the national nonprofit reproductive health organization the Guttmacher Institute.
Lindberg noted another change, the push toward abstinence-only sex education during the George W. Bush administration. Sex education programs focused on the message of not having sex until marriage and the fact that all contraception had some chance of failure.
Another explanation, Albert said, may be “success fatigue.” After almost 15 years of decline, less attention and funding is being provided for pregnancy prevention programs.
“You have to continue working on this issue because there are new teenagers every day,” he said.
Faced with budget restraints, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment slashed $300,000 worth of teen pregnancy prevention programs this summer.
Among the cuts was the Teen Independence Project, a $77,500 program at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. Teenage mothers are still being served through other programs, but a staff position was lost, said Barbara Schnitker, director of clinical services.
Talking to teens
Family and Consumer Science teacher Betty Currie asked her class of Lawrence High School students last week why they thought birth rates were increasing across the country.
“They said a lot of times it is just abstinence and ‘don’t do it, don’t do it,’” Currie said. “They felt like they need to know both sides of it.”
Her students also said that more education should take place in junior high school and that parents need to be more open with their children.
Research shows that parents are still the No. 1 factor in a teen’s decisions about sexual activity.
“This is an ongoing, 18-year conversation,” Albert said. “Parents are more powerful than they believe in this area.”
As for Currie, she believes teens need to hear about the emotional ramifications of being sexually active — as well as the physical ones.
The emotional strain of having sex too young was a burden that Barbara Watkins carried for years.
“A condom doesn’t protect your heart,” she likes to say.
At the age of 15, Watkins had an abortion. At the age of 17, she had a daughter. She said she was “fractured” well into adulthood as she lived with the guilt of having an abortion.
“They just said ‘good girls don’t do it’. Well, shoot, that didn’t mean anything to me,” Watkins said. “I wish someone would have taken the time to sit down and explain, you have a high value, you are worth waiting for.”
Today at 50, Watkins is the director of the Pregnancy Care Center of Lawrence at the LEO Center, a nonprofit Christian organization. When she talks to teenagers she encourages abstinence and warns that sex comes with a price tag.
“You are walking away from the innocence of being a kid and walking into an adult role,” she tells them.
A change in priorities
When Ryan and Criss are asked what advice they have for other teens, the conversation veers in one direction.
“Use protection,” Criss answered.
“And, try not to do it,” Ryan followed up.
Ryan’s mom, Patti Ryan, said she warned her son to be careful.
“We had had the talk, if you are going to do it, you have to have protection,” she said.
Hearing the news that her son’s girlfriend was pregnant wasn’t easy. But Patti and her husband, Mark, decided the couple shouldn’t drop out of school and the baby wasn’t going to be put up for adoption. The two care for Robert during school hours.
In the Ryan household, the bottle feeding, bathing, changing of diapers and putting to bed is a tag-team effort. And they are jobs that usually more than one person wants to do.
“This guy is a million-dollar baby, at the least. He’s very much a keeper,” Mark said.
As for life after high school, Ryan and Criss’ education plans are on hold. Ryan wants to keep working and Criss will stay at home to take care of Robert.
“He’s my first priority,” Criss said.