Breaking South L.A.’s cycle of teen pregnancy

Fourteen-year-old Marissa Cardona had just finished trying out for her middle school’s soccer team when her water broke.

“Since I didn’t know much, I was confused,” Marissa said. “I thought, ‘Am I sweating?’”

For months, Marissa had kept her small baby bump hidden. She practiced soccer drills with her dad, wore loose clothes and pretended she was still a normal teenager. She hadn’t told anyone she was pregnant because she was too scared.

But then she went into labor. Her mother took her to the hospital in the middle of the night, thinking she was sick. As the nurse took her blood pressure, Marissa felt the baby crown.

“I pushed one more time, and then Armando came out. I was standing up, and my mom caught him. All the nurses came, closed the curtains and just cut me up,” Marissa said. “He was born at three in the morning.”

Marissa said she and Armando’s 14-year-old father, who left when Armando was one, didn’t know about contraceptives like condoms or birth control, a common problem among teens living in South Los Angeles.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the U.S. teen birth rate has steadily decreased over the past several decades, and in 2011, it declined to a record low of 31.3 births, the lowest rate reported since the 1940s.

But South L.A.’s teen birth rate remains stubbornly high at nearly double the national average, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health. And it continues to be the highest in the county, nearly 10 times the rate for the more affluent Westside, which includes Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Malibu.

Local community organizations are fighting to reduce South L.A.’s high teen birth rate, offering teen pregnancy prevention programs both within and outside the classroom. But a neighborhood culture that facilitates a cycle of young teen mothers makes South L.A. one of the toughest areas in the county to avoid teen parenthood.

Support from parents

Marissa, now 20, says she considers herself lucky to have parents who supported her. Her father, Mario Cardona, said he initially struggled with mixed feelings, not sure whether to follow advice from some family members who told him he should put Marissa and her son out on the street.

“I didn’t know how to react,” Cardona, 46, said, looking back at the moment when he first saw his teen daughter with his grandson. “But then I grabbed ‘Mando and then I just hugged my daughter and told her, ‘Everything’s going to be okay. I got your back.’”

Cardona paused, his eyes brimming with tears. “So ever since then, I’ve had her back.”

But he questioned how Marissa could become pregnant since he often took her and his second daughter, Ruby, to pregnancy prevention workshops he taught as a project director at the Girls Club of Los Angeles. When Marissa returned to school after taking a semester off, Cardona brought his grandson to work with him, putting Armando in the child-care center with other children of teen moms.

“It’s been…devastating when you try to help out another teenage mom, but here you go. You have the same issues at your house,” Cardona said.

jocelyngloriaAt Girls Club, Cardona met Executive Director Gloria Davis who oversees the organization’s youth development programs that promote healthy lifestyles for teens living in South L.A.

“The best contraception is education,” Davis said, which is why Girls Club offers a school-based prevention program every semester at Washington Prep High School.

Project Director Jocelyn Nichols, who teaches the eight-week health course, said sex education was more than just covering reproductive health.

“If we just start talking about sex – what it looks like, virginity and celibacy, pregnancy prevention – we don’t get to what kind of goals they have in life and what they want to be,” Nichols said. “It wouldn’t defer them from becoming pregnant.”

But Nichols said many teen mothers have to leave their dreams behind in order to financially support their children. Only half of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by the age of 22, according to the CDC.

“They feel like they have to choose between school and their baby,” Nichols said. “The baby’s not going to give…so they look at right now instead of tomorrow because right now is the baby. Tomorrow, they can’t see.”

South L.A.’s teen birth rate a mystery

Why South L.A.’s teen birth rate eclipses the rates for the rest of the county remains a mystery to public health officials.

“That’s the $6 million question,” Christine De Rosa, director of the adolescent and school health unit for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said. “It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly, but it goes along with all other adolescent risk behaviors: poverty, opportunity, jobs and gang involvement.”

De Rosa pointed to the neighborhood where a teen mother lived – rather than age or ethnicity – as the most important demographic to target in order to reduce the teen birth rate in Los Angeles.

“It has a lot to do with where you live,” De Rosa said. “It impacts the resources that are available to you in the community…It’s a bigger issue than just teen pregnancy. It’s a quality of life issue.”

Despite efforts by LAUSD, Girls Club and other community organizations like Planned Parenthood to make condoms available at schools’ nursing offices, underserved communities like South L.A. continue to lack the necessary resources to educate students about safe sex.

According to a study conducted by the county health department, nearly 30 percent of 9th graders surveyed among 12 LAUSD high schools reported having sexual intercourse. When these students graduated four years later, this number more than doubled. And among high school students in the U.S. who reported being sexually active, only 60 percent said they used a condom during their last sexual encounter.

Sonya Negriff, a research assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work, said besides a lack of resources, family dynamics also play a major role in determining a teen’s likelihood in becoming pregnant.

“Being born to a teen parent…or being raised in a single parent household makes teens more likely to engage in unprotected sex and be a teen parent themselves,” Negriff said.

But Mario Cardona and his family didn’t fit that category. He and his wife, Karen, had been happily married for 25 years. Both were in their 20s when they had children.

Though strict with his daughters – often warning them they were beautiful girls whom boys would find attractive – Cardona said he blamed himself for Marissa’s pregnancy. He admitted he wasn’t always around, serving a year in prison for a DUI conviction.

It was during that time that Marissa became pregnant.

“The father figure wasn’t at home,” Cardona said. “I was elsewhere, doing time, and Karen was trying to keep up with the house so they were on their own in a way.” To make up for the time he was gone, Cardona took on a father figure role to his grandson, who affectionately calls him, “Papa.” Cardona supported Marissa and kept her in his home so she could graduate from high school in 2010.

But balancing school and motherhood proved to be tough once again. When Marissa was 19, she became pregnant with her second son, Damian.

“The second time I told my parents I was pregnant, they were mad because they wanted me to beat the cycle,” Marissa said. “You know, every teenager who becomes pregnant, in about five years, they become pregnant again.”

Nearly one in five teen births are a repeat birth for the mother, according to the CDC. Marissa said even though she didn’t plan to become pregnant again in her teen years, she said she felt more prepared because she was older and more mature to handle her pregnancy. And with the help of Damian’s father, Dennis, whom she married this past year, she said the second time around has been easier.

She and her husband plan to one day move out of the garage behind her father’s house and be financially independent. She said she wants to become a probation officer after she graduates from LACC with her criminal justice degree.

But on this Saturday morning, she is “Mom” to her two sons. Five-year-old Armando sits on the floor of his play room, surrounded by hundreds of Hot Wheels cars his mother had bought for him. Marissa leans back on a chair in the living room of her father’s house, feeding baby formula to her hungry five-month-old.

Marissa said she’s not sure whether she will have any more children, saying she sometimes wishes for a daughter. But because she already worries enough about her sons when they become teenagers, the daughter will have to wait.

“Even though I would have the talk with them, kids are still going to do what they want,” Marissa said. “If I were to stay with my children around here – I don’t want it to happen – but they would probably be teen parents too. It’s just common.”


South LA food lines are lines of survival

By Melissah Yang

Every month for the past four years, Donna Alexander has gone to the food line down the street from her home in South Los Angeles. Sometimes, she waits in line. Other times, she helps pass out food.

This month, she does both.

imageDonna Alexander (Photo by Melissah Yang)

Alexander, 59, first takes a bag of food for herself and then grabs more bags for her neighbors who have trouble walking and can’t leave their homes. After checking in with them, she returns to the corner of 79th Street and Vermont Avenue to help manage the food line in front of New Antioch Church of God in Christ.

“I guarantee you, for everybody that was in that food line, they can tell you where 10 other food lines are, what days they are and what times,” Alexander said. “Those are the people that live and breathe on food lines because they have no choice.”

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, about one out of three people in South L.A. are living below the poverty line, double the average for Los Angeles County. More and more people in South L.A., including Alexander, have to depend on food lines to stock their refrigerators.

Alexander says she feels lucky compared to others so she does her best to help her neighbors when she can. Everyone on South L.A.’s 79th block knows that the front door of her home is always open. When a neighbor calls out, “Donna, Donna,” from the sidewalk, she walks out to see what she can do.

Alexander says her role of helping others is like a full-time job.

But that job doesn’t pay, and Alexander is still unemployed after being laid off as a counselor for parolees with drug and alcohol addictions two years ago. Since having a stroke in 2000, Alexander has struggled with maintaining a job. She supports herself and her 19-year-old son, Le’Ron, who also can’t find work, through disability checks from Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program.

James Kornegay, who runs New Antioch’s monthly food line, drove to two food banks earlier in the week to collect three truckloads of groceries in order to help feed the neighborhood.

While church members put whole frozen chickens, beef patties, bread and juice into brown paper bags, Kornegay holds up a sign-in sheet with a list of people’s names, addresses and family sizes. He passes out the first bag of food promptly at 9:00 a.m., although people began to line up two hours earlier.

“Food is an issue,” Kornegay said. “These families are making $25,000 to $30,000 a year for six people. They just need a little help.”

Alexander says the issue isn’t whether food is easily accessible. There are two grocery stores within half a mile of Alexander’s home. The problem, she says, is that her neighbors can’t afford to shop there.

And to further save money, families and friends are living under the same roof.

The average household size in South L.A. is 3.39 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost one person more than the average American household. A bigger household means more mouths to feed, and South L.A.’s high unemployment rate of 12.9 percent – five percentage points higher than the national rate – is not only leaving people without work, but also keeping food off of tables.

New Antioch’s Senior Pastor, Jeffrey M. Lewis, says the economic difficulties of the past few years hit South L.A. especially hard. New Antioch’s food line has always been busy, but now it wraps around the corner every month.

“When the recession hit, people who had normal blue-collar jobs lost them,” Lewis said. “They don’t have college degrees so they were just left hanging.”

Alexander points out that the people who are in the food lines aren’t homeless. She says that they just don’t have enough money to feed their families.

Alexander spends two-thirds of her social security income on rent and utilities. Without the lines, Alexander says she would have to spend another $75 per week on food, money that she says she does not have.

“Now, where do groceries come in at? So, what else are we gonna do but get in the food line,” Alexander said.