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Hennepin County awarded $17 million to expand its successful teen pregnancy-prevention program

Every so often, Big Government does something right, and its people are rewarded accordingly.

Hennepin County mustered the research to show that its “It’s Your Future” program, currently operating in schools in Brooklyn Center and Richfield, has had dramatic success lowering teen pregnancy rates. As a result, the county has been awarded $17 million in federal pregnancy-prevention funding to replicate the initiative.

The money — the first federal funding for something other than abstinence-only programming in a decade — will be used to extend the program to 27,000 teens in schools and clinics in other Hennepin cities with high rates of teen pregnancy: Brooklyn Park, Crystal, Hopkins, Minneapolis, New Hope and Robbinsdale.

Yes, there will be condoms. But there will also be a whole lot of proven pregnancy-prevention programming that doesn’t necessarily even touch on sex.

“I think it’s the number-one social service concern, human service concern we ought to have in the county,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat. “We know the results of babies being born to teens are dire, both to babies and to the parents whose lives are essentially forfeited.”

Part of a $110 million national initiative
The money is part of the Obama administration’s $110 million initiative to lower teen pregnancy rates, which dropped steadily throughout from the 1990s to 2006, rose in 2007 and dropped again in 2008. Researchers are still unsure whether the 2007 uptick was a statistical blip or the result of abstinence programming, which is widely considered to be ineffective.

Hennepin County is the only agency in Minnesota to apply for and receive one of the grants, which will run for five years. The eight Hennepin communities have or are approaching the national teen pregnancy rate of 42.5 per 1,000 adolescent females.

The problem is particularly acute among minorities, according to project manager Katherine Meerse of Hennepin’s Research, Planning and Development Department. Birth rates among Latino and African-American teens in Hennepin are as much as 12 times those of white teens, and Minnesota has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation among African-American teens.

As has become an Obama hallmark, the grants are being given to replicate programs that research has proven effective. In total, 115 programs in 38 states will receive funding.

Discussions about healthy decision-making
Hennepin’s program will have two components. The established one is a teen outreach program that engages eighth- and ninth-graders. For nine months, students met once a week in schools or community organizations and talked about healthy decision-making. They also volunteer in their community, discuss community issues they learned about in the process and the impact the teens could have on them.

National data show that participants in programs like those in Richfield and Brooklyn Center are 53 percent less likely to cause a pregnancy or become pregnant, said Meerse. Research hasn’t yet parsed the cause-and-effect relationship, but she and others suspect it has to do with instilling real self-esteem in teens.

“They learn how to think long-term,” Meerse said. “And they have additional access to caring adults.”

The new program will be based in 16 clinics operated by seven organizations, including participating school districts. In addition to seeing a doctor or nurse, teens will get half-hour, one-on-one safer-sex counseling sessions. Any risky behaviors they might be engaging in will be identified.

Parents who don’t want their kids counseled can opt out, but they may have to take steps to make it happen.

Consent form for MPS
In Minneapolis Public Schools, for instance, parents are given a form they can fill out to consent to their child receiving care in a school-based clinic. They can specify that their child receive all services, no services or everything but family planning. If they don’t sign and return the form, their child can receive all services.

Why schools? “It’s where we encounter kids,” said Opat. “We wish parents would take the reins.”

The programs should be in operation within a year.

“It’s exciting,” said Opat. “Hopefully, we can start to make a dent.”

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