NATIVE AMERICANS: Teen Pregnancy Rate On the Rise
California's teenage pregnancy rate has dropped by 22% in the past eight years, but the California Journal reports that "hidden in that glowing statistic is a troubling trend: Births to Native American teens have been rising, giving them the dubious distinction of being the only ethnic or racial group in the state to see an increase in teen pregnancies." In 1998, the pregnancy rate for Native American teens increased by 6.4% from 1997 to nearly 40 babies born to every 1,000 girls, and that figure is expected to go up again this year. In comparison, 1998 births fell by 5.3% for white teenagers, 8.7% for blacks and 6.2% for Hispanic girls. The situation has sparked great concern from state, local, tribal and federal agencies. Officials attribute the rising teen birth rates among Native Americans to several factors. According to Jim Crouch, executive director for the California Rural Indian Health Board (CRIHB), government campaigns against teen pregnancy "overlook the importance of Native American culture and are therefore doomed to failure." He explained, "For Native Americans, pregnancy is not a sickness or a disease, it's a naturally occurring event. ... It's how life goes on, it's the next generation of the tribe, a blessed event." Additionally, Shelly Zimmer, community health director at the Sacramento Urban Indian Health Project, said that government prevention programs fail among Native American teens because there is an "underlying distrust of anything the government has to offer" that stems from their people's "slaughter 200 years ago."
Falling Through the Cracks
The increasing numbers of teen pregnancies are straining tribal health systems that are "already struggling to meet basic Indian health needs." Crouch notes, "Over half of the people in our tribal health program are under the age of 19. The message is just not getting out. We have an extremely high percentage of girls who come into the clinics for the first time during their third trimester." Teens are "fall[ing] through the cracks," Crouch argues, because agencies like the CRIHB, the Sacramento Urban Indian Health Project and the California State Indian Health program need more money to offer beyond-basic services. Barbara Beller, tribal government resource specialist for CRIHB, said, "California is so far behind. We don't have Indian hospitals like some states, and Indians here receive about one-third the dollars for health care as Indians in other states."
A youth "talking circle" program in Shasta Lake City, 12 miles north of Redding, is one "shining example" of a successful community outreach program for pregnancy prevention, California Journal reports. Armed with a Community Challenge Grant, the Local Indians for Education group started sponsoring "gender-specific talking circles" four years ago, in which groups of boys and groups of girls met separately twice a month to discuss social and personal issues, including teen pregnancy. Youth Services Coordinator Michon Eben lectures on birth control and abstinence and hosts games such as "Sexual Jeopardy" to provide information on reproductive health. According to Eben, not one girl in the community has become pregnant since the program started. However, such efforts face funding restrictions, she said, noting that all 12 of the state's rural Indian health clinics and programs affiliated with the federal Indian Health Service receive federal money, and thus are barred from broaching the subject of abortion. Such restrictions tear "yet another hole in the thread-bare fabric of Indian health services" and reenforcing the "scattershot nature of efforts to prevent teen pregnancies among Native Americans," the California Journal reports (McDaid, May 2000).