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County ranks third in state in teen births according to newest stats

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County has one of the highest teen birth rates in Minnesota.

The latest data for 2002-04 puts Kandiyohi County in third place among the state's 87 counties -- tied with Beltrami and Nobles counties -- for births to young women in the 15- to 19-year-old age group.

"I wish I had good news," said Mary Holstad, county social worker. "But I don't have good news."

The county ranks fourth for the pregnancy rate -- which includes fetal deaths or abortions in addition to live births -- for that age group, also tied with Beltrami County.

The higher-than-ever birth and pregnancy rates come after years of implementing an abstinence-only education approach in the county and at a time when state funding for prevention and intervention programs has disappeared and local grants are running out, Holstad said.

"We're almost broke," said Holstad, during the Kandiyohi County Board meeting Tuesday.

That has made it difficult for the Kandiyohi County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition to continue to provide activities. The coalition has provided educational booths at schools and at Sonshine, the annual Christian music festival in Willmar -- activities which have been very popular in the past, Holstad said.

With little or no money available, the coalition wants to make sure that the activities they do fund are effective.

"Our board does not want to see your coalition run out of money," said Commissioner Richard Falk, indicating that the county may have to make up the gap for a lack of state funding. Falk said he'd rather have the coalition doing something -- even if it isn't totally effective -- than do nothing at all.

Holstad said the coalition is "struggling to define its direction" on whether to take an "abstinence-only approach" to pregnancy prevention, or a "more comprehensive approach."

The group is also assessing the target population in the county and looking at research that might help pinpoint which programs are the most effective at preventing teen pregnancy to maximize the usefulness of existing funds.

Funding for pregnancy prevention has become "very political," she said.

Since 1993, when the coalition was started in Kandiyohi County, it has implemented an abstinence-only approach to education programs. Some of the funding the coalition received even required that programs present an approach of abstinence only until marriage.

At the time, it was viewed as a non-controversial way of getting pregnancy prevention programs into schools, said Holstad in later comments. It was also viewed as a "good message" to give to teens.

While it may be ideal, abstinence-only programs don't address the needs of teens who have chosen to become sexually active and need information on contraceptives, she said.

Even though it may "feel" successful, Holstad said the fact that Kandiyohi County has the third highest rate of teen births in Minnesota is an indicator that the abstinence-only approach to teen pregnancy isn't working.

Organizations around the country are currently conducting research on teen-pregnancy prevention programs, said Holstad. The coalition wants to use that research as a model to develop a plan for future programs here, which may include a more comprehensive way of educating teens about sexual activity and preventing pregnancy.

Commissioner Harlan Madsen said preventing teen pregnancies is a high priority that's a difficult challenge to meet. Failing to do so, however, carries a "significant cost," he said.

Although the overall Minnesota teen birth rate is lower than the national rate, Minnesota's teen birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds is higher than the national average for all racial or ethnic communities other than white, according to the Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting.

Youth of color in Minnesota have pregnancy rates that are two to five times higher than white teens, said Holstad. In 2005, Holstad said, 62 percent of the pregnant teens she worked with in Kandiyohi County were either Latino or American Indian.

Although the birth rate is higher for youth of color, statistics indicate that the greatest number of teen births in Minnesota is to white females.

The good news in the statistics is that the overall teen pregnancy and birth rates have declined in Minnesota and nationally, according to statistics.

May is teen pregnancy awareness month.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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