Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the 10 Suffolk communities with the highest rates of teen pregnancies between 2005 and 2007 are mostly poverty-stricken minority neighborhoods, though some are predominantly white lower middleclass areas: Moriches, Brentwood, Wyandanch, Riverhead, Mastic, Mastic Beach, Amityville, Bellport, Central Islip and Copiague.
To help combat the growing number of teen pregnancies in the Hispanic community, SNAP has hired a full-time bilingual employee and is developing programs to work more closely with Spanish-speaking parents. DiMonte explains it would benefit all parents to have that dreaded conversation about the birds and the bees sooner rather than later.
“It is so important for the parents to get involved at an early age,” she says.
Yet there are still other reasons why teenage motherhood is on the rise, besides the aforementioned causes, explains Spector, who was recently appointed a member of Suffolk’s Teen Pregnancy Task Force. Some girls purposely get pregnant because they are trying to compensate for a loss, receive love or hold on to a boyfriend. Positive images of teen pregnancy in the media—like Juno, whose protagonist is a wise-cracking high school girl whose pregnancy presents a couple minor inconveniences, but many opportunities for hearty laughs, personal growth and multiple love interests—also do not help, she adds.
“Unfortunately, when you see so many of these movies and television shows [portraying teen pregnancy] it’s like an exciting thing for a girl to become a mother,” she says. “It’s a terribly difficult thing.”
For the most part, Spector explains, the teens have no plan: “Ninety percent of teen pregnancies are unplanned.”
“They do not realize what they’re in for,” says DiMonte. “Raising a child is the hardest job you’ll ever have.”
BABY MAMA DRAMA
Besides holding the dubious distinction of the highest rate—and growing—of teen pregnancies in the state outside of New York City, Suffolk also owns the title of county with the most abortions in 2007, both overall and among teenage mothers, according to state health department statistics. Slightly more than half of Suffolk’s pregnant teens opt for abortion, with about 1,000 bringing the pregnancy to term annually.
Each case has its own set of circumstances that lead to that difficult decision.
For Kelly, terminating the pregnancy was never an option, she explains. She and her son’s father had been together for four years before she got pregnant. As the reality of becoming a mother at 18 began to set in, she got a job at a local Burger King so she could start saving money to prepare. They considered giving up their baby for adoption, but when their son was born, on March 24, 2006, they decided to raise him themselves.
Kelly and her then-boyfriend moved into his mother’s house after the baby’s arrival. They named him Damion. After four months, however, the young parents ran into problems and eventually broke up. Kelly declines to elaborate.
At her father’s suggestion, she applied for assistance from the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, and she and her newborn son were placed in Mercy Residence in Bellport, run by Mercy Center Ministries, a community-based nonprofit organization that houses homeless pregnant and parenting teens. According to their mission statement, the three houses they run are “designed to teach young women the skills they need to go out into the world and be responsible adults, responsible parents, and productive community members.”
Kelly lights up when talking about the group home.
“I liked it there. It was like a regular house with a bunch of girls living in the house too with the same kind of situation,” she says during a break from working as a clerical aide at SNAP’s office on Main Street in Patchogue, her hair up in a ponytail.
“They helped me a lot with the difficulties that I had with my son,” Kelly adds. “They also taught me how to save money, go food shopping properly and basically taught me how to be responsible.”
After six months, Kelly left Mercy with the help of social services and currently lives in an apartment in Patchogue, but still relies on food stamps and cash assistance. The labor department found her the job at SNAP, which Kelly says she had never heard of before she started working there. She credits her coworkers as being the driving force behind her getting her GED, which she received this past March.
“They pushed me to do it,” she says. “I didn’t believe in myself enough and they were able to convince me that I could do it.”