County bucks state trend with lower teen pregnancy levels

Forrest Alton enjoyed not just his dinner at the Winton Inn, but took delight in knowing Barnwell County is an area where his message has been heard.

"Barnwell County is one of the 12 counties in South Carolina that has seen a decrease in teen pregnancy," he said. "Change doesn't happen in Columbia - it happens right here."

May is National Teen Pregnancy Awareness Month and Alton - the executive director of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy - is taking his message on the road.

Alton spoke before about 40 Axis 1 Center of Barnwell workers, school personnel and community leaders at a May 15 luncheon.

Alton said between 1990 and 2004 S.C. teen pregnancy rates decreased by 40 percent, but since then there has been an increase in 34 out of 46 counties.

"Barnwell County is one of the exceptions," he said. "What you're doing, you're doing well in Barnwell County."

According to data from the campaign, the county had 98 pregnancies ages 10-19 in 1994; 80 pregnancies in 2004; and 69 pregnancies in 2006.

Alton praised Axis1 for its teen pregnancy prevention work.

LaVette Foust is the community adolescent pregnancy prevention specialist for Axis 1.

She has been to the Barnwell and Blackville school districts where she has taught pregnancy prevention to grades six through 12.

In 2009, Foust reached 717 children in the Barnwell and Blackville school districts with age-appropriate classroom messages that involve roleplaying, decision-making and service learning.

Alton said the message of teen pregnancy prevention is critical because starting in 2004, the state's teen pregnancy rates began to rise again.

And while the rates are still lower than 1994, Alton said teen pregnancy prevention advocates must continue the message.

Alton spoke of a cycle of poverty which often strikes pregnant teens and their children.

He said there are three conditions present - a teen giving birth to a child; the pregnant teen not finishing high school; and the teen being a single parent - which increase the chance of poverty by 67 percent.

Every baby born to a teen costs S.C. $22,000 per year, said Foust.

"Legislators need to be aware that when they are cutting budgets they are cutting these programs (teen prevention)," said Foust.

Alton spoke of a five-method approach to be used in fighting teen pregnancy.

He told the crowd to be aware of prevention fatigue and not to become complacent to the cause.

"As soon as we turn our backs on the issue, rates will go up," said Alton.

Alton also spoke of the importance of the combination formula of using abstinence and contraception.

"Many times people set this up as an "either/or" conversation - but we want to talk about both," said Alton. "Young people want to hear about both. They want to hear from an adult it's OK not to have sex and at the same time hear about contraception. We need to talk about both - they are complex issues and have complex answers."

Alton's next point was that the conversation needs to start at home.

"Parents need to talk with children," he stressed.

Parents and educators also need to realize the teen population is changing with the times and the message needs to be tailored for the era.

"We can't continue to teach the way we were a decade ago," said Alton.

He finished his talking points by saying the "anything goes" culture among teens must stop.

He said "sexting" is an example of the "anything goes culture meeting technology."

Sexting is when teens send explicit messages and photos over their cell phones.

"Some blame the media for this culture - I'm not going to do that - I'm blaming us. The challenge is to recommit to this issue."

S.C. Rep. Lonnie Hosey was singled out by both Axis 1 and Alton for his devotion to the teen pregnancy prevention cause and awarded a plaque.

He spoke of the need for a frank discussion on sex and contraception among youth, parents and the community.

But it what it mainly comes done to is parents talking to their children, said Foust.

"Parents need to be the number one provider - we can't sit back - parents need to be number one," said Foust.

By the end of the roadshow tour, Alton will have visited 22 counties in 15 days and delivered 55 speeches.