Instead of asking Augusta teenagers directly whether they were having sex, a group working to reduce teen pregnancy asked in a survey whether their friends were having sex. Nearly 65 percent responded that their friends between the ages of 13 and 15 were having sex, a “proxy” number for the number of teens actually having sex.
“That certainly was alarming to us,” said Dr. Donna Elliston, the project director for the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention. “It is not only high, it is pretty accurate given the current rates for Richmond County where the teen pregnancy and teen birth rates are higher than the state of Georgia.”
Augusta also has an extraordinarily high rate of sexually transmitted disease in teens, the eighth-highest in the state and the highest among its major cities, according to an analysis of data by the The Augusta Chronicle.
GCAPP received a $7.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to try to lower Richmond County’s teen pregnancy and teen births by 10 percent by 2015. The group and its 16 community partners are midway through the second year of the grant and are still training and helping implement programs, Elliston said.
They have their work cut out for them. Richmond County’s teen pregnancy rate in 2009 was 87.2 per 1,000 for those ages 15-19, compared with a state rate of 61 per 1,000. The rate is lower than it was in 2000 for the same age group, when it was 98.8 per 1,000 compared with a state rate of 81.3 per 1,000.
Richmond County has not made the same progress as other large areas – Fulton County’s teen pregnancy rate, for instance, dropped from 97.1 per 1,000 in 2000 to 56.9 per 1,000. Elliston said Fulton County is benefitting from more teen centers, more attention focused on the problem and greater education efforts.
PART OF THE Richmond County grant is to increase education efforts with “evidence-based” proven programs, some of which go beyond teaching just abstinence. At New Bethlehem Community Center, for instance, a program called Making Proud Choices teaches sexual health and negotiating skills to deal with pressures to have sex or other situations, Executive Director Millicent West said.
“We realize that a lot of times we tell the teens that they shouldn’t have sex but we don’t tell them what to do” when faced with a situation, she said.
The center is targeting 15- to 19-year-olds through area churches, and part of its challenge is that the curriculum teaches about safer sex, including contraceptive use, West said.
“Part of the reason they have sexually transmitted diseases as well as pregnancy is either no use of contraceptive or the incorrect use of contraceptive,” she said. “That is part of the wholistic approach that has to be discussed as well. It is very delicate and we have to be very careful how it is approached, but we want to stay true to the curriculum.”
While there has been some resistance from those who want abstinence-only sex education, the reception has been “very positive because they realize there is a problem,” West said. All she asks is that pastors and parents keep an open mind about the program.
“And that they will see that it doesn’t encourage sexual activity but in cases where the young people are actually engaged in sexual activity that they would be more responsible,” West said.
Evidence shows that going through the curriculum helps convince students to delay sexual activity until much later, she said. Kids Restart, which deals with at-risk youths and children in foster care, is also implementing Making Proud Choices because it covers a wide range and emphasizes kids speaking up for themselves, Executive Director Daniela Whitaker said.
“It really makes them understand that they have a voice and their opinion matters,” she said. “You don’t have to just go with the crowd, that you’re allowed to have your own opinion, that it’s important to voice your opinion and stick to what you believe in.”
One major player not included in the GCAPP effort is the Richmond County Board of Education. Elliston said there are no current talks between her group and the school system.
“Although we may not be directly in the school system per se, we still are able to target those kids,’ she said.
More than 90 percent of parents and teens included in the group’s survey said there was a need for greater education not only about preventing teen pregnancy but also on HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevention, Elliston said.
IN A STUDY of teen sexual health in the South by Auburn University, Georgia had the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections and double the rate of HIV/AIDS, said Bev Jones, the director of communications and business affairs for GCAPP.
And Richmond County is among the highest of Georgia counties, according to a Chronicle analysis.
In 2010, the sexually transmitted disease rate for ages 13-19 was 5,611.4 per 100,000, or nearly 6 out of 100 teens, The Chronicle found. It is more than double the Georgia rate for that age group overall at 2,251.8 per 100,000 and nearly nine times the overall STD rate for the state.
Part of what Kids Restart is trying to overcome is the mentality of teenagers that “they are invincible and all of these bad things that are out there are really not going to happen to me,” Whitaker said. “This is really making it real to them that this is something that is out there and you have to keep yourself safe.”
GCAPP HAS APPROACHED five clinical partners – including the health department, Planned Parenthood and Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics – about “promoting more teen-friendly clinics, as well as providing contraceptive services for sexually active teens,” Elliston said. Other organizations will be encouraged to refer teens to those services, she said.
“Certainly with those numbers it clearly illustrates to us that there is a lot of sexual activity that is going on amongst the young people and it is really important to help them protect themselves,” Elliston said.
If successful in Richmond County, the group hopes to create a model for other areas, said GCAPP President and CEO Vikki Millender-Morrow.
“That’s something that we are really looking forward to and think that it will make Richmond County shine as we see all of the progress,” she said.
Staff writer Sandy Hodson contributed to this report.