LUMBERTON — At the end of a long, muddy dirt road in Rowland, in a purple single-wide trailer, beyond a screen door tied shut with string, lives a mother and her three children — one of whom is about to become a mother herself, at the age of 15.
“I was scared,” Katelynn Oxendine said of when she realized she might be pregnant. “Scared that I may have messed my life up.”
Katelynn didn’t tell her mother, Kimberly Oxendine, or her sister, Tenisha Eddings, her fear. It wasn’t until Eddings, who had a daughter at 18 and noticed things weren’t quite right with her little sister, made her take a pregnancy test that Eddings knew she would be an aunt. By the time Katelynn saw a doctor, she was three months along.
“I was really upset and mad, and worried about how we were going to handle it,” Kimberly said. “But then I had to stop and think, and everybody does stuff when they’re young, everybody makes mistakes. We’ve all done it, we’ve all did things we regret we’ve done and I can’t punish her for that. We’re just going to have to work on this together.”
Katelynn’s story is frequently told in Robeson County. According to the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, during 2011, about one girl aged 15 to 19 became pregnant every day in Robeson County — a rate of about 69 per 1,000 girls, almost 58 percent higher than the state rate of 43.8.
The numbers, however, are down — the 355 teen pregnancies in 2011 reflected an 18 percent decrease from 432 the previous year — a drop that plunged Robeson County to No. 11 statewide in teen pregnancy rates. In 2008, Robeson rose as high as No. 2 in the state with 494 pregnancies, a rate of 98 out of 1,000 teenagers.
The rate per 1,000 teenagers in Robeson was 39 for white teens, 93 for Hispanics and 76 for blacks. Statistics for American Indians are not provided by the campaign, but a 2010 study by the state’s Center for Health Statistics found that from 2004 to 2008 the average teen pregnancy rate for American Indians in all of North Carolina was 85.7 per 1,000.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 329,797 births to teen parents in 2008 in the United States cost an estimated $11 billion, including health care, lost tax revenue, foster care, public assistance and the higher likelihood of incarceration associated with teen pregnancy.
More than one third of all households in Robeson County live on less than $15,000 a year. Growing up in poverty is one of the biggest risk factors for teen pregnancy, according to the CDC.
“It just puts a lot of extra burden on the family, taking on this whole new thing of one of their children being pregnant and now they’re bringing into the world another child that they may or may not have the resources to care for, ” said Cindy Herndon, program administrator for the Robeson County Health Department’s Nurse-Family Partnership program. The program places a nurse with a first-time mom to help her take an active role in her and the child’s health.
Darlene Gold, another administrator with the Nurse-Family Partnership, said the program provides mothers with information on child safety that might have been lost in a generational gap because “a lot of folks in this county aren’t raised by their biological mother.”
“Typically there is a male missing in a lot of high-poverty areas,” said Bill Smith, the county’s health director. “There is no father figure. That could lend itself to females being attracted to older males, or it also could be that she wants to have the baby to keep the guy around — you have a lot of different dynamics at work within the family structure.”
Administrators at Eckerd, a nonprofit with an office in downtown Lumberton that works to provide life skills to young parents, often see young mothers who have been in relationships with much older men.
“I think it’s because they’re looking for that attention from a male and if that’s the only kind of attention that they feel they can get, then that’s what they’ll take,” said Erin McQueen, a supervisor with Eckerd.
According to the CDC, the children of teenage mothers are “more likely to have lower school achievement and drop out of high school, have more health problems, be incarcerated at some time during adolescence, give birth as a teenager and face unemployment as a young adult.” Only about half of teen mothers graduate from high school by the age of 22, as opposed to about 90 percent of adolescents who are not parents.
“To me, the poverty is a cycle that they’ve learned from maybe more than one generation of poverty, which is hard to break, but normally you don’t break a cycle like that unless you have some guidance and some help,” Herndon said. “You have to have a mentor and be mentored through it — and that’s what we’re trying to do, is break the cycle of poverty.”
To experts, breaking the cycle is all about arming teens with information about the consequences that having unprotected sex can bring.
“I think it comes from a lack of education as far as birth control goes, and I’ve listened to the girls as they talk, and a lot of them, their parents don’t discuss birth control,” said Becky Bullard, coordinator of the Adolescent Parenting Program at Eckerd. “Their parents don’t discuss sex before marriage. And they learn a lot of it from friends.”
Kimberly Oxendine said she had a talk with Katelynn and her boyfriend about sex.
“I told them, she’s too young to be on birth control right now, I don’t believe that she should be having sex,” Kimberly said. “She’s only 15. … I tried to talk to her and I tried to talk to the boyfriend about having babies, that it was not a thing for them to do, to wait until they were more mature to be making that decision, and they still did it. So it doesn’t matter what you tell them, they’re going to do what they want to do anyway.”
Smith credited a modification of the state’s sex-education curriculum that went into effect during the 2010-2011 school year with the decline of pregnancy rates. The curriculum, which is part of the Healthy Youth Act, requires that schools include information about STD rates and contraception. But, he said, Robeson County schools should be doing more.
“They’re supposed to teach abstinence and then consequences,” he said. “Unfortunately, it sometimes winds up being what the teacher feels comfortable with, so they may not talk a lot about bodies or sex at all, they may lean more again on abstinence, but that’s left up to the teacher. But from a Board of Education standpoint, they should be teaching consequences.”
According to Linda Emanuel, assistant secretary for curriculum and instruction for the county’s school system, the state Board of Education gives local school boards the right to choose between abstinence-based sex education or a more “comprehensive” plan.
“I think there’s a place for both types of education, on the dangers of having sex and on waiting until marriage to have sex,” Emanuel said. “We respect the parent’s decision to make that call.”
Emanuel’s sentiments were echoed by Jason Suggs, the county’s athletic director and health and physical education supervisor, a title that puts him in charge of the county schools’ Reproductive Health and Safety Education. Suggs said parents of students in grades 7 to 9 can object to their children receiving sex education by submitting a letter to the principal.
“In this county, we want to make sure we give the parents the right to opt out if they don’t want the schools to teach them the curriculum,” Suggs said.
According to Suggs, abstinence is the focus of the curriculum, but schools still “have to do the lesson, and what the state requires,” which is a “document-only” presentation about local, state and national rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and contraceptives and their success rates.
According to the state Board of Education, individual school districts have the option on how far to push sex education. The last time the policy came up for a vote, Robeson County’s Board of Education supported education with a focus on abstinence.
Board member Dwayne Smith said his vote was prompted by “how he was raised, and his beliefs.”
“Here we are living in the Bible Belt, and what the Bible teaches is that you shouldn’t have sex until you’re married,” Smith said. “There’s no sugarcoating to it. That’s the way it has to be.”
Smith, the parent of an 8-year-old boy, said it’s not the school’s place to teach students about sexual education. Such learning, he said, “starts at home.”
“You can have all the sex education you want to, but it’s up to the parents to sit down with them and tell them what’s what,” he said. “… Parents have to take some responsibility too.”
Nineteen-year-old Catrina Collins, who walked across the stage of her high school graduation at six months pregnant, recalls her sex education.
“They told us abstinence was the best form of birth control, but obviously, in today’s world, that’s not exactly a choice,” she said.
Collins said students were given condoms, and “the pill” was mentioned as another form of birth control. She said she never had “the talk” with her mother.
“She just thought it would be handled in school,” she said. “… But it’s not the parent’s fault. Never. It was my choice.”
Shahnee Haire, Robeson County Teen Outreach Program coordinator, said the high-rate of teen pregnancy locally shows that teenagers aren’t getting the information they need from their parents.
“I believe, being the Bible Belt-type of county, I think the school system doesn’t want to interfere with parents,” she said. “They want to be on good terms, so they do bare minimum. I believe they are scared about parents, they don’t want an uproar. But to me it seems they … don’t want to see the problem.”
Haire said she can only speak at schools if she is invited, and that rarely happens. When it does, she said it’s evident by the number of pregnancies she sees that the strategy is flawed.
“They have people that aren’t trained. It’s P.E. teachers doing the (sex education) training,” she said. “They don’t want to do condom demonstrations — they don’t want to go in-depth about that kind of stuff.”
Collins believes that schools should employ more preventative measures, such as giving a student a doll that mimics the experience of taking care of a baby.
“That would be nice, because I bet a lot more people would start using condoms or birth control and just not chancing it,” she said.
Collins said raising 3-month-old Apache Jacobs, whom she calls A.J., tests her teenage patience, and is mostly her job because the father works such long hours.
The Teen Outreach Program, which operates on a federal grant, provides teens with exercises about the difficulties of being a young parent and helps to answer questions about sex. The program also offers incentives such as field trips to its participants — as long as they don’t become pregnant. Smith said the program is successful because it “fills time in a healthy manner.”
“When people get out of school and their parents work, there is a lot of idle time,” he said. “This keeps them active. And in this program, everyone graduated high school. They didn’t drop out, they didn’t get pregnant, so it’s working.”
For teenagers who have had a child, Smith said, there are programs whose focus is on delaying a subsequent pregnancy. About 29 percent of Robeson County teenagers who gave birth in 2011 were already mothers — a rate that has been steady and is on par with the state.
“The first one is not much of an issue,” Smith said. “It’s the second one that kind of comes on the heels of the first one that confines you to a poor economic outcome. So if you have one you can probably go back to school, but that second one — that’s what a lot of our programs do is try to prevent that second one, try to give you some spacing.”
Eckerd, both privately and publicly funded, is one of those programs. Bullard and McQueen try to impart a sense of self-worth to the teen parents they serve, and to convince them that having a baby does not doom them to a life of poverty.
“A lot of the teens I see, especially the girls, they feel down on themselves because they are so young and because they do have babies,” Bullard said. “And a lot of them think that they can’t continue education. A lot of them think that this is it.”
Bullard, a native of Robeson County, is able to use herself as an example. A month after graduating from high school, at the age of 18, she became pregnant — but she was determined not to be a part of a cycle of poverty.
“I didn’t want to stay in that shape,” Bullard said. “I didn’t want to be poor. I didn’t want to live from paycheck to paycheck. I wanted to be able to provide for my family. It took me a little while to do it, it did, but thank God that I did it. I just wanted better not only for my child, but I wanted better for myself.”
Some resources exist in the public schools, Emanuel said, such as the Learning Acceleration Program, which provides online instruction to at-risk students, including those who are pregnant.
“In severe cases, or maybe because of complications during pregnancy, we have a Homebound program,” Emanuel said. “We send a teacher that makes periodic visits and delivers assignments to the home.”
On Tuesday, Katelynn was home from school with a backache. Her mother was hoping she could be placed on Homebound early.
“I’m thinking her back pain is coming from all this walking up and down this dirt road, because she has to walk down the dirt road to meet the bus at the end of the road …,” Kimberly said.
Katelynn is already receiving one service from home, that of the Nurse-Family Partnership. Nurse Kelly Deal visits twice a month, makes health checks and lets Katelynn and her family know what to do in case of complications.
“We encourage self-efficacy of the mother so that the mother can sustain the family,” Herndon said. “In doing that we find out what the mom’s ‘heart’s desire’ is and we figure out where she wants to go in her life and provide her with resources so she can make that happen for herself.”
Katelynn, an honor roll student who said she “loves school,” hopes to have a career in law enforcement or medicine. Collins wants to be a nurse practitioner.
“We can still find a way for her to follow her dreams,” said Jessica Harris, a nurse who works with Collins. “She can still do what she wants to do and be a good mommy at the same time … we try to make it a positive outcome.”
Collins said she wouldn’t change her path.
“I’m in love with A.J.,” she said.