I was scanning through random stories this morning and after a series of one link leading to another, I found a post on CafeMom titled “11-Year-Old Girl Who Gave Birth is Not Normal” by Jeanne Sager. The author tells us from the beginning that the article is her response to the shock/repulsion that this has happened. She is flabbergasted at what the world has come to and that reaction is more than understandable. She openly states that the purpose of her post is to “talk herself off the ledge” and make herself and the reader feel better about the situation by reciting the facts/stats that proclaim this is not the norm in the good ol’ U.S of A. (the little girl lives in Columbia). But I think there was a missed opportunity to “enlighten” the reading public in a different way; a more uncomfortable but, in my humble opinion, more important way.
Before I get into the guts of this I want to make very clear that this is not meant as a criticism of this author or her article. I read her bio and she’s a funny, talented, multi-tasking mom who I would probably get on with quite well. I even encourage my readers (especially moms) to check her out. And as far as the content of the article goes, she told us straight-up it was meant to help us feel better about the tragedy of a child having a child; but my reaction and response to the news story is a little different, so I’m going to just simply take this in another direction without any intention of belittling the work of Jeanne.
Now, down to the ugly business of this. My reaction to the headline was minimal; a simple sigh of sadness but not surprise or shock. This will probably sound cynical or uncaring to those who don’t know my background, so I’m going to explain. My first “real” job after graduating with my psychology degree was working as a behaviorist/weekend supervisor for a residential facility for pregnant teens. This was in the southern United States, not a foreign country. I won’t get any more specific than that as I want to maintain as much privacy as possible for the girls that lived there and, unfortunately, keep distance between myself and some of the people I had to deal with.
This facility had been in operation for over 100 years and originated as a home where unwed girls and women could be hidden away for 9 months until their babies were born and adopted. By the time I went to work for the organization its purpose had changed drastically. It essentially had become a place to house pregnant minors (not just teens) that were wards of the state. This meant that the girls had been temporarily or permanently removed from the care of their parents and placed in the foster care system. Our facility provided an on-staff nurse, therapists, a school, parenting classes, guaranteed meals, and (for the most part) a safe place to live.
I’m not going to dribble on about the details of how the facility ran (or didn’t run) or even the slow process of emotional numbing I went through during my time there; I’m just going to cut to the barebones ugliness of what the reality is here in our country. I’m going to shine a light on it because I don’t want to sweep this under the rug with pretty statistics that make it easy for us to ignore. I don’t want us to talk ourselves off the ledge. I want more people to stand on the ledge and scream at the top of their lungs, “There are children that need us! Take off your blinders!”
While I was there (only one year due to the extreme depression the job caused), I watched 3 twelve-year-olds give birth. I remember one girl who’s IQ probably hovered in the 80’s squeal with glee on her thirteenth birthday just simply because she would be a teenager when she gave birth. I was told by fellow staff that the youngest girl they’d ever had was 10 but luckily she’d miscarried. I watched countless 14, 15 and 16-year-old girls give birth. I was even the birth coach for three different girls who had nobody else they trusted. I watched the women from the catholic organizations come in and talk to blank faces about the beauty of giving their babies up for adoption. During my employment we had only one girl (a smart, gifted athlete) enter the home with the intentions of adoption (she had family but Medicaid would pay for girls to attend the facility even if they weren’t in the foster system). She was bullied severely by the other girls. These 14-year-olds told her she wasn’t a “real woman” if she didn’t keep her baby. Despite our best efforts, she left the facility with her new baby girl.
I met another girl who had lived with her mother in a home that had no electricity or running water. She didn’t even know how to use deodorant or shave when she arrived. Her mother had literally pimped-out her 14-year-old daughter to men in their town. If she needed her car fixed and couldn’t afford it, she’d just tell the mechanic, “You should meet my daughter.” The girl was pregnant by a 40-year-old man but 14 is the age of consent in that state. A judge was at least smart enough to place the girl with us but that didn’t keep mom from visiting. This girl had severe anger issues and was huge. I had to step between fights with her and other residents more than once. She worked out a system with her mom that she would fake labor once a week, late at night when the nurse wasn’t on shift at the home. One of the staff would have to drive her to the hospital where her mom would be waiting along with the new 40-something man she had chosen as a husband for her daughter. This guaranteed hours of time together as they knew the hospital would be slow and the state would pick up the tab. After the girl had the baby I distinctly remember her erupting into one of her ferocious tantrums, the entire time her newborn son barely dangling from the crook of her arm. We could only stand and try to calm her because we couldn’t risk a physical take-down. A few weeks later a judge decided that the girl could go back to her mother who promptly took her back to the courthouse the next day and signed-off permission for the 14-year-old to marry the new boyfriend so she could not only “raise” her new son but also the 4 children of the new husband.
Are you getting sick yet? I hope so. You, the public, need to know that this is all around us. I’m not even including all of the stories. There’s the 24-year-old grandmother I met (you do the math). There was the girl who came in on an emergency transfer one night who was 14, pregnant from a rape by her uncle, and had the mental and emotional capacity of a 6-year-old. She was terrified and didn’t know why they’d taken her from her grandmother. I prevented her from killing herself that night. There was the girl with scars all over her body from the beatings endured by her father, who the court kept returning her to. I could go on and on with heartbreaking stories but the purpose isn’t to make you so sick that you just turn your head, it’s to make you aware and quite honestly, angry. Our system is broken and will continue to be as long as we keep putting rose-colored glasses on every time we see something ugly.
We have to find ways to improve sex education. It’s obvious those moms aren’t reading these parenting blogs or sitting down and having heart-to-hearts with their kids. We need to stop banning the promotion of contraception in our schools and only embracing the promotion of abstinence (seriously, how many of you were virgins on your wedding night?). We have to boycott shows like Teen Mom!! The girls I worked with often defended themselves by saying, “My mom was only (insert age) when she had me and she’s fine!” It is a system of generational ignorance, a horrible cycle that needs to be broken. We need to support organizations that try to educate these kids. We need to do more to fix the very broken foster system. We need to stop feeling so good about statistics because they’re only numbers. We need to care about the people: the babies having babies. I don’t have the answers, but it has to start with at least acknowledging that it does exist and not just in other countries.
So read the articles that show us the statistics of what is going well, but then let’s figure out how to make it even better. Continue to educate yourself and your children, but pay attention to the ugly side too and try to find a way to extend the love you have for your own kids to some that aren’t so lucky in the parent department.