Lillian Harris laughs when she’s asked whether she planned to get pregnant at 16.
“Definitely not,” she says. “I was in denial for a long time. I never went out to get a test. I didn’t want to accept that I was pregnant.”
But she was. And once the Chicago teen gave birth to her son Jubril, now 4, things only got more difficult. Harris struggled to finish high school while balancing a turbulent home life and the responsibility of raising a child. At one point, she and Jubril even lived in a women’s shelter.
Now 20, Harris is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work at the University of Illinois-Chicago and works part time as a pharmacist’s assistant. But perhaps most important, she has delayed a second pregnancy.
And that’s saying something. A quarter of teen-age mothers have a second child within two years of their first, researchers say. That second child is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Those so-called subsequent pregnancies are a blight on what could be an encouraging trend in teen pregnancy statistics. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that in 2000, the teen birth rate hit an all-time low of 48.7 births per 1,000 females aged 15 to 19 — a decline of 22 percent since 1991.
But having a second child can affect a teen mother’s future in myriad ways. So while avoiding a teen-age pregnancy is important, delaying subsequent pregnancies could be even more crucial in helping achieve better outcomes for both teen mothers and their children.
“Many kids can make it with one child, especially with the support of extended family,” explains Pat W. Mosena, a former demographer at the University of Chicago. “The second child is often a wipeout. At that point it’s long-term welfare. If [the second pregnancy] doesn’t change life options, it certainly puts those options on hold.”
According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit that provides civil legal assistance to low-income families, teen mothers who have subsequent pregnancies are one-third less likely to finish high school or get a GED and three times more likely to wind up on welfare. They’re also more likely to abuse or neglect their children and have them removed to foster care.
Spurred by her research, in 1990 Mosena founded the Illinois Subsequent Pregnancy Project, a state-funded program that works with teen moms over the course of two years to help delay a second pregnancy.
ISPP, which is run through nine health and social service agencies in Chicago and around the state, accepts 300 first-time mothers ranging from 14 to 18 years old and “provides intensive home visiting services coupled with substantive training and support through group participation,” Mosena said. This training includes education about birth control, school counseling and career-planning advice.
The program seems to be working. Between 1996 and 2000, only 2 percent to 4 percent of the teen moms participating in ISPP each year had a second pregnancy; 88 percent to 90 percent said they had no unprotected sex in the last month; and between 75 percent to 80 percent remained in or graduated from high school.
Yvette Mitchell, also of Chicago, is a graduate of ISPP and has since gone on to earn a master’s degree in social work. She was 18 when she gave birth to her son Hiram in 1992.
Mitchell, who was raised in a single-parent household, credits ISPP and training associate Anita Murphy with helping her achieve her dreams.
“She really explained to us that your roof is your child’s floor. Where you stop is where your child begins,” Mitchell said. “I knew that if I had anything then my child would have it. I didn’t want to get bound in by another child and be unable to give both children everything they needed, as far as nurturing and caring.”
Murphy said that many of the teen moms she works with “are missing options in many areas — family, school, work, positive role models — and all of these are inextricably tied to adolescent pregnancy. These factors, or the lack thereof, are not only affected by, but also precipitate pregnancy.”
While there’s no federal legislation that specifically targets teen subsequent pregnancy, programs similar to ISPP have achieved success elsewhere. The Nurse Home Visitation Program in place in Elmira, N.Y., and Memphis, Tenn., works with young mothers up to 24 months after the birth of their first child.
Harris, the young mother now at UIC, started out in ISPP but has now moved on to a slightly different program called Next Step for Teen Moms, a three-year-old Chicago venture that seeks to not only delay a second pregnancy but prepare teen moms for college.
The two-year program offers training sessions on contraception and career planning, but also helps the 20 to 25 girls in the program prepare for the SAT and the ACT, fill out college applications, and find scholarship and grant money.
What is most unique about the program, says coordinator Diane Deaderick, is that each girl is paired with a mentor from the Junior League of Chicago, a women’s community service volunteer organization that has committed $750,000 over five years to the project.
Nancy Snyder, president of the JLC — one of 296 junior leagues worldwide — said the focus on college readiness grew out of the stark disparity in lifetime earnings for college graduates and non-college graduates. According to a Census Bureau report released last July, the average lifetime earnings for a full-time, year-round worker with a high school education are about $1.2 million, compared with $2.1 million for a college graduate.
Harris’ mentor, Pat Arnold, helped her find an apartment to move into last May, and also helped in the job search that landed her at Osco Drug Co.
“She’s always trying to look out for me,” Harris said.
Arnold said she’s always enjoyed working with teen-agers, and Harris has been no exception. The mentors are meant to be older women who can serve as positive role models and help the teen moms in the programs find solutions to their problems.
“I couldn’t have found a better partner,” Arnold, 53, said. “One of the things I do love about Lillian is that I remember picking her up one day and she said, ‘I had a terrible weekend!’ She was constantly pouring out all the information I needed to help her.”
While it’s too early to judge Next Step for Teen Moms’ relative success, Harris said her relationship with Arnold will not end once she finishes the program next June.
“This is now a lifelong relationship,” she said. “We’re more than just a mentor and a partner. I consider her a friend.”
© 2002, McClatchy/Tribune Information Services.