The high teen pregnancy rate in Washington County is a crisis that demands action, said Community Maternity program director Sue Hughes.
She’s not interested in more sex education or free condoms. She needs help caring for the dozens of pregnant teenagers and young parents in Washington County right now.
County supervisors were disturbed last week to learn that Washington County’s teen pregnancy rate is still high — much higher than Warren County’s (see box) — despite years of efforts by the Youth Bureau. They began discussing ways to prevent more pregnancies. Statewide data can be seen at https://on.ny.gov/2Ee2gzi and shows that while Washington County’s rate is decreasing, the state average and surrounding counties are much lower.
Hughes said the county needs to focus on the teenagers and babies in need right now.
In the last decade, the agency has seen steady state grant cuts. Community Maternity used to have two offices — one in Warren County and one in Washington County — and each were staffed with two full-time caseworkers and a full-time family educator.
Now, more teens are getting pregnant, but the agency is down to only one part-time caseworker per county. Those caseworkers go to the teens’ homes to run parenting classes, provide donations of diapers and formula and help solve emergencies as the teens try to finish school.
Getting them help is tricky, because many teen parents are still living with their parents. That means they can’t get WIC, food stamps and other assistance, unless their parents’ income is low enough to qualify for it.
Maria Murphy remembers the struggle. She gave birth to her son Bobby at 15, the summer after her freshman year of high school.
For six months, she tried to hide the pregnancy. But a guidance counselor at Hudson Falls high school called Community Maternity, and a caseworker there came to the school weekly to help Murphy figure out what to do.
The caseworker drove Murphy to all of her prenatal appointments — she hadn’t had any until then — and talked to her parents. When they refused to help, the caseworker persuaded Murphy’s father to sign her into foster care until the baby was born, and to let her come home once the baby was adopted.
When Murphy went into labor, her foster mom stayed with her. When Social Services took the baby to an adoptive family, her foster mom sat with her as she sobbed all afternoon.
“Finally she said, ‘If you want to keep your baby, I will help you,’” Murphy said.
They called her caseworker that night and got the baby back the next morning.
It was a pickle for Community Maternity — Murphy could not stay in foster care because she had a home to go to, Hughes said.
At first, foster mom Dawn Sweet intended to have Murphy live with her. But she lived in Glens Falls, and the school district would not let Murphy enroll, saying she was not truly a resident. She had to go back to Hudson Falls.
So her caseworker and the foster mom persuaded Murphy’s dad to let her come home with the baby on weekdays, so she could attend high school.
Her father unbent enough to offer $30 a week for a babysitter during school hours. Finding someone who would work for that little was a constant problem.
“I missed a lot of school. I went through a lot of babysitters,” Murphy said.
Sometimes she walked into a home to see the babysitter doing drugs. She would walk out and simply skip school until she found a new babysitter.
Eventually, a friend’s aunt agreed to watch her baby. The woman often paid for food and diapers for him, too. Another woman offered to babysit for free in the evenings so Murphy could work at Rite Aid and McDonald’s, where she earned money for formula and diapers.
On weekends, she went to Sweet’s house. She counted down the hours to that oasis, where she had a responsible adult in the home who would help her and babysit for free.
But on weekdays, there were days in which she lacked the money for formula or diapers. Community Maternity would bring her supplies when she called. The agency also bought her a car seat so she could drive the baby to his babysitter’s and get herself to school.
Thinking back, she wishes she could have stayed in foster care as a mother.
“My life would’ve been a lot better if I’d been placed in her home with Bobby after I made the decision to keep my baby,” she said.
But instead, the only support she got was from Community Maternity. While foster care regulations have changed somewhat since then, the basic rules about household income for WIC, food stamps and welfare have not. That means most pregnant girls today still aren’t getting much governmental help.
Community Maternity, too, cannot help as many girls as it once could. The caseworkers can only take on 12 girls per county now, Hughes said.
They would love to also do group parenting classes for “at risk” teenagers who are not yet pregnant. The agency used to run those sessions.
“But we don’t have the funding,” she said.
Any new funding they get is immediately directed to the teenagers in the most need.
“A lot of times someone comes in and gives me $50. Oh my God, how many packs of diapers can I buy?” Hughes said.
The agency is located at 290 Canada St., Lake George and can be reached at 518-668-3167.
Murphy is now happily married, has raised three more children and is an office manager. She took pains to make sure her children would feel comfortable talking to her about sex and pregnancy.
One of her sons used to attend regular Planned Parenthood meetings about safe sex, at group sessions intended to educate school leaders who would then disseminate the information throughout their school.
Murphy supported that, as well as efforts to give out free condoms. But she said Washington County doesn’t need more of it.
“It’s widely talked about. There’s no more education you can get — they even give you free condoms, and people are still getting pregnant,” she said. “The only thing they can focus on is providing support when it happens.”
She credits Community Maternity with helping her through the roughest period of her life.
“I feel I wouldn’t have my life today if it weren’t for them,” she said.
And she knows now, she said, that having a baby as a teenager is not a death sentence.
“I didn’t even know if my life was going to be successful, much less his,” she said. “I just knew I loved him. For four days in the hospital, I didn’t let him leave my room. I just knew I loved him.”
She looked at her son, now 30 years old and the owner of his own restaurant, Craft on Nine in Moreau.
“And I made it,” she said. “A baby isn’t the end of the world.”