During President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, he noted a historic decline in teen pregnancy.
“We still may not agree on a woman’s right to choose,” Obama told the nation. “But surely we can agree it’s a good thing that teen pregnancies and abortions are nearing all-time lows.”
While Obama was delivering his speech, Dr. Erin Latif was on Twitter, working to make sure teen pregnancies continue to decline in Richmond County.
Latif, the director of Augusta’s Teen Life Clinic at Georgia Regents Medical Center, held an open forum on Twitter, urging local teens and their parents to ask questions on ways to empower young women.
The inaugural event used the hashtag “TeenTalkTuesday” and Latif hopes to make the one-hour chat a weekly occurrence.
“Five years ago, statistics regarding teen pregnancy in Richmond County were extremely high,” Latif said. “But we’ve come a long way since then. Our goal is to empower the youth in our county to take control of their future and to have a say in the order in which they have babies, complete their education and get jobs.”
In 2009, girls aged 15 to 19 combined for 595 pregnancies in Richmond County, with more than 11 new pregnancies documented each week.
The next year, Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Prevention received a $7.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to try to lower Richmond County’s teen pregnancy by 10 percent by 2015.
The grant, known as the “We Are Change” initiative, has exceeded expectations, says GCAPP President and CEO Kim Nolte.
In 2010, the first year of the initiative, the number of teenage pregnancies in Richmond County dropped from 595 to 494. In 2011, there were 473 pregnancies in Richmond County. The number dipped to 410 in 2012.
According to National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, Georgia’s teenage pregnancy rate dropped another 10 percent from 2012 to 2013, with the latest state rate being 30.5 per 1,000 girls.
County-by-county statistics for 2013 have not been released.
“Our goal was to decrease teen pregnancy in Richmond County by a total of 10 percent in five years,” Nolte said. “But in 2012 alone, we saw a 20 percent decrease … It’s unbelievable what Richmond County has accomplished. From 2011 to 2012, teen pregnancy dropped 12 percent in the state of Georgia, while Richmond County nearly doubled that.”
Although the teen pregnancies rate in Richmond County still exceeds state average, Nolte attributes local improvement to organizations such as the Augusta Mini Theatre, Latif’s Teen Life Clinic and events put on by the Richmond County Health Department “that make gaining knowledge fun and easy for teenagers.”
“On average, more than 1,000 Richmond County teenagers are receiving life-changing information from local clinics every year,” Nolte said. “And that doesn’t include those impacted by word of mouth. Prior to the grant, most clinics in Richmond County were hit-or-miss, but the grant has brought a coordinated effort to helping teens gain invaluable information.”
Latif’s clinic, on the fifth floor of the Georgia Regents Medical Office building, encourages girls to come with a parent, but it is not required. According to law, teenage girls can receive pregnancy advice and birth control without having parental consent.
“We encourage families to come together, but not all parents feel comfortable talking to their kids,” said Latif, who pointed to a poster in her clinic. “Like this sign says, only 57 percent of parents feel comfortable speaking to their kids about sexual health. In addition, a lot of girls would rather speak to someone who’s not a relative.”
Even though Richmond County’s 2013 and 2014 statistics have yet to be released, Latif is confident the numbers are still declining.
“The numbers will be even more impressive,” Latif said. “I really believe that … It’s incredible how many teenage girls have taken the time to come into our clinic and receive education. We’re proud of how far Richmond County has come.”
At the Richmond County Department of Public Health on Laney-Walker Boulevard, Frank Grier and Kiswana Branch have used funds from the grant to implement new ways to get teenagers discussing safe sex.
In 2014, Grier and Branch introduced the group “SET – Sex Education for Teens,” where teenagers speak to peers about pregnancy.
“It’s one thing for teens to hear it from us,” Grier said. “But it tends to hit home harder if teens hear it from people their own age.”
With Grier and Branch by their side, teenagers will show up at different community events to share personal stories.
Brittany Clinkscales, a recent T.W. Josey High School graduate, is one of more than a dozen SET members.
“We stress the importance of abstinence,” Clinkscales said. “But if the teens we’re speaking to are sexually active, we also give advice on ways to prevent pregnancy.”
Since joining SET, Clinkscales says community-wide interest in the group has skyrocketed.
“I was walking down a T.W. Josey hallway and one of my friends said, ‘Hey, I heard you on the radio this morning,’ ” Clinkscales said. “Then she wanted to know what SET was all about and how she could get more information. Our goal is to get teenagers talking and that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
Any teenage boy or girl is welcome at the health department and can receive complementary forms of birth control.
Similar to Latif’s clinic, parents are not required, but receiving knowledge is obligatory before receiving contraceptives.
“If a teenage boy walks in asking for condoms, he used to be able to walk to the front desk, get the condoms and leave,” said Kelly Bushey, Richmond County Health Department manager. “Now, once a guy says he needs condoms, they sign in and have to meet with health educators. We want to educate teenagers and make sure they leave with educational material.”
According to Nolte, when the grant - which expires in September - was introduced in 2010, three primary goals were stated: Reduce the rates of teen pregnancies; increase youth access to evidence-based programs to prevent teen pregnancy; and increase linkages between teen pregnancy prevention programs and community-based clinical services.
“Everything the grant strived for has been accomplished,” Nolte said. “And with momentum on Richmond County’s side, I’m confident teen pregnancy will continue to decline. The ‘We Are Change’ initiative has made people talk, and even though the grant is expiring, conversations don’t have to.”