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Teen birth rates continue to decline in Sonoma County

It’s midafternoon and Heidy Ortiz, 18, is done with her coursework at Amarosa Academy. She walks just a few hundred feet to the day care center at the far end of the Santa Rosa alternative school campus and gently wakes up her son, Dominic.

Since giving birth to Dominic two years ago, the cheerful, hardworking student has taken on a battery of high school courses at Amarosa, including English, science, culinary arts, social studies and math. Graduating is a priority for Ortiz, one that would only be complicated by a having a second child at her age.

“I want a better future for myself and my son,” she said. “When he’s in school, I don’t want him to say, ‘You didn’t go to school, so why do I have to?’ ”

Ortiz is on birth control to prevent a second pregnancy. That decision, combined with many teens avoiding pregnancy altogether, are among the key reasons Sonoma County continues to see dramatic declines in teen birth rates. Reproductive health experts say it’s also an affirmation of programs that provide access to contraceptives and education on sex and teen parenting.

Since the beginning of the millennium, teen birth rates have tumbled 64 percent in Sonoma County. For teen moms participating in a county program aimed at reducing repeat pregnancies and increasing graduation rates, the birth rate is between 0 and 1 percent.

“Unplanned teen pregnancy prevention requires many strategies,” said Tammy Brunk, assistant professor in the school of nursing at Sonoma State University. “Two measures that have demonstrated some success are contraceptive education programs focused on teens and providing access to contraception.”

Brunk, who did her doctoral study on teen pregnancy, said local teen birth rates reflect a national trend that shows ongoing declines among all racial and ethnic groups, though significant disparities between the groups still exist.

In Sonoma County, the birth rate for Latina teens was 18.2 births per 1,000 teens, compared to 3.4 births for white teens during the three-year period from 2015-2017. But for the period between 2000-2002, Latina teens had 76.5 births per 1,000 teens and white teens had a birth rate of 13.6.

Since then, birth rates have plunged 76 percent for Latina teens and 75 percent for white teens.

“This is public health at its best — it makes me really happy to see what we’ve been able to do in the past 20 years,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

Studies show teen moms are less likely to finish high school, will earn less income than their peers, will more likely have daughters who become teen moms and have sons who are significantly more likely to become incarcerated, Zane said.

“Those are just some of the reasons the county has made reducing the incidence of teen pregnancies a high priority,” she said, adding that the entire community benefits by giving all teens the chance to live up to their potential.

While the county’s overall teen birth rate has declined dramatically, rates continue to be high in certain areas, such as Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, said Kembly Mahiri, a supervising social worker for Teen Parent Connections, a program with the county Department of Health Services that helps teen moms and pregnant teens graduate from high school and further their education to become more self-sufficient.

In Santa Rosa’s 95407 ZIP code, whose boundaries include much of southwest Santa Rosa, teen birth rates have also seen an impressive decline in a short time.

During the 2008-2010 period, there were 53.2 births per 1,000 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 in that ZIP code. Five years later, between 2013 and 2015, the rate dropped to 26.4 births per 1,000 teens.

The number of total births during the three-year period of 2008 and 2010 was 241 for southwest Santa Rosa. That number dropped to 131 for the three-year period just five years later.

For Santa Rosa as a whole, teen birth rates dropped from 51.4 per 1,000 to 25.1 during those two periods.

“It’s access to birth control or lack of access to birth control, plain and simple,” Mahiri said.

It’s a success that’s hard to miss.

“Growing up in Sonoma County, I had so many friends in high school who were pregnant, so many girls,” said Mahiri. She said she now sees far fewer “baby strollers” than she did when she was a teen.

Jenny Mercado, an epidemiologist for the county health department, called the declines a “great public health success” that reflects trends seen at the national, state, county and neighborhood levels.

Recent research from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the decline in teen birth rates is happening even faster now than it was 10 years ago, Brunk said. She cited a recent CDC study of girls between the ages of 10 and 14, which showed that between 2008 and 2016, birth rates for that group declined 67 percent to a record low of 0.2 births for 1,000 girls.

The birth rates girls between 10 and 14 are understandably far lower than for teens between 15 and 19, she said.

The declines in birth rates coincide with efforts on the part of federal health officials to provide local communities with the resources they need to target high-risk communities. One example, she said, was a collaboration between the CDC and the federal Department of Health and Human Services between 2010 and 2015, where the agencies supported communitywide initiatives providing teens with proven pregnancy prevention interventions and reproductive health services, including long-acting reversible contraception.

One example of local, communitywide efforts is reducing the number of second births to teen moms.

Grace Harris, director of children and family services for the Child Parent Institute, said intervention is crucial for stopping the cycle of teen pregnancy. The institute works under contract with the Sonoma County Office of Education’s teen parenting education programs at Amarosa and Santa Rosa City Schools’ Ridgway Continuation High School.

That partnership also includes caseworker services from the county’s Teen Parent Connections. Mahiri said a lot of those teens come from environments where there have been traumas and other family challenges and instabilities.

During the 2016-2017 fiscal year, 72 percent of all Teen Parent Connections clients graduated from high school and none had a repeat birth; 80 percent of those who were not pregnant reported using contraception.

Oritz, the teen mom at Amarosa Academy, said she’s gathered information about effective methods of birth control from a parenting book, as well as from talking to her mother about it. She lives with her boyfriend near her mother’s house in Windsor. With her boyfriend busy working, she said one child is enough.

“Having two I think would be really, really hard,” she said, adding that she would one day like to work in Wine Country hospitality or promotions.

Earlier this week, while Dominic rested in Amarosa’s day care center, Ortiz made cookies for an employee appreciation day event put on by the Sonoma County Office of Eduction. Ortiz said she tried independent study before coming to Amarosa two years ago but ended up missing a lot of school. Amarosa and its parenting programs provide her with the support she needs to finish her high school education later this month.

“If I wasn’t here, I feel like I wouldn’t have graduated,” she said.