Tough choices

Teens often don't understand the realities of being a parent until they no longer have an option. Teachers and others at Juneau-Douglas High School are trying to change that.

Posted: Sunday, May 14, 2000

If Adrian Berg could have heard himself speak when he was 17, he might not have become a father at 18.

Berg, a Juneau-Douglas High School graduate, is dad to Hailee, who turns 3 at the end of this month.

``I'm supposed to have custody 50 percent of the time,'' Berg said. ``But right now it's about 100 percent.''

As he speaks, he holds and soothes a whining Hailee, who is fighting her Saturday afternoon nap.

``I was barely 18 when Hailee was born,'' Berg said. ``She was born just 10 days before I graduated.''

For a day each semester, Berg volunteers to tell high school freshmen about his legal fight for custody of Hailee and about his crowded life.

 

Snuggle practice: Alyssa Perry holds a computer baby during a childhood development class at Juneau-Douglas High School.

MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE

``I work two jobs. I'm a full-time student at University of Alaska Southeast,'' he said. ``And in the summer I'm a charter boat captain.''

``I tell all the kids, `I am not here to tell you guys what to do; but I am going to show you a reality; to show you what could happen.'''

Fatherhood, he said, is ``just another thing among all the things that have to do with sex that they need to think about,'' he added.

Berg remembers the parade of speakers who came through his health classes, but none of them changed his mind about being sexually active, he said.

``For the most part, people are going to do what they are going to do,'' he said. ``But if I make a difference in one person's life, that's great. I have gotten some pretty intense letters from kids.''

Hailee's mother, Lindsay Oliver, was 17 when she gave birth.

``Looking back, I know that I thought I was totally in love. You grow up and you realize it was just a little high school thing,'' Oliver said. ``So if you have any doubts (about whether the relationship will last), listen to the little voice inside.''

Graduating on schedule became a big issue with her family, she said. And she did, in 1998.

Oliver loves Hailee, but she said being a mother has not made life easy. For teens contemplating sex, she has two words: ``Use protection.''

Like Berg, Oliver works hard. She had been living with Berg and his wife, but is looking for a place of her own. She plans to enter college in the fall to major in computer programming.

Some of the facts that Berg and the high school health class pass on include the cost of a paternity blood test in Juneau: $600. If parents fail to support their offspring, the state can subtract money from their paycheck and their Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. The minimum monthly payment for a parent who doesn't have custody of the child is $50. When a parent ignores state paperwork, he or she may be slapped with the average support payment -- in Juneau, $860 a month.

One of the resources teens such as Lindsay Oliver and Adrian Berg have in their corner is Mary Tonsmeire.

Tonsmeire is an adolescent health coordinator, a city employee who heads the Teen Health Center at the high school. She lobbied to have the health center in the school. Although other communities have considered such a center, Juneau has the only one in the state and got it because of community support, Tonsmeire said.

Nationally and in Juneau, the teen birth rate has dropped since 1990. As more teens use condoms, emergency contraceptive pills or contraceptive implants, Tonsmeire's job gradually shifted from counseling teens who were already sexually active or pregnant to postponing sexual activity and preventing teen pregnancy.

Teen pregnancy can disrupt young lives emotionally, financially and scholastically, Tonsmeire said.

But those are not the only reasons for preventing it. She said that perhaps 20 percent of teen pregnancies end in spontaneous abortions because the body is not sufficiently mature to carry a fetus to term.

``We push abstinence,'' Tonsmeire said. ``You can start them on (contraceptive) pills, but they forget.''

Birth control pills have a 5 percent failure rate in adult women, she said, and a 15 percent failure rate in teen-age girls.

She talks about abstinence not only to prevent unwanted or unplanned pregnancy but also because of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS and chlamydia, an infection that can lead to chronic pelvic pain, tubal pregnancies and sterility.

``These kids face a world of viruses at a level that (teens of 20 or 30 years ago) never did,'' she said.

Many school districts provide abstinence education, but 23 percent of all school districts in the United States teach teens that abstinence is the only option available and forbid dissemination of any positive information about other contraceptive options.

``I really do believe that postponing sexual intercourse -- narrowing that window between when you initiate sex and when you are in your life partnership -- is the best way to prevent STDs and unplanned pregnancy,'' Tonsmiere said.

For those who don't abstain, condoms are still a recommended safeguard. And Tonsmiere sometimes daydreams about improvements in availability.

``Zach Gordon Youth Center gives out free condoms. Public health gives out free condoms. The SEARHC clinic gives out free condoms,'' she said. ``But it would really be nice if there were condom dispensers in public bathrooms, and teens could access them at 8 o'clock on a Friday night.''

Midwife Kaye Kanne of the Family Birth Center has witnessed the decline in unplanned teen pregnancy since she began practicing in Juneau in 1984. Because of the decline, Kanne says the center does not see many teen clients.

``However,'' she said, ``we do see a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds who have graduated, are married and have planned their pregnancies.''

Kanne has found that expectant teens are not comfortable in birthing classes with older women, or, if they are single, with couples. So she drafted grant-writer Brittany Kasselder, a member of the Birth Center board, to help her with a support program for clients 15 to 20 years old. The grant application for the program was submitted to the Alaska Children's Trust, Kasselder said.

``The link with the Trust is that cases of child abuse would go down'' if young mothers had this support. ``Teens are an at-risk population for child abuse. There are many combined stressors in their lives that makes them more at risk.''

``In working with teens,'' Kanne said, ``I found that the attitude of the family is often that `You made this big mistake' instead of just loving them and supporting them.''

For details about emergency contraceptive pills, call the Emergency Contraception Hotline at 1-888-NOT-2-Late. The service is free and confidential. Information is also available on the Internet at http://opr.princeton.edu/ec/.



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