Even as the statewide rate falls, the number of teenagers giving birth in McDowell County is soaring, jumping 34 percent in five years.
The 2012 West Virginia KIDS COUNT report released Tuesday shows a rate in McDowell of 96 births per 1,000 girls in 2010, the latest figures available. That’s 17 more births per 1,000 girls than the next-closest county, Mingo, and more than double the statewide rate.
McDowell’s rate is also seven times higher than the county with the fewest teen births: In Monongalia, it’s just 14 per 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
The figures are alarming, says KIDS COUNT Executive Director Margie Hale, because teenagers who get pregnant are likely to drop out of school and live in poverty. Their children are at higher risk of being born underweight and dying before their first birthdays. Experts say they’re also less likely to get the intellectual and emotional stimulation needed for healthy development.
Overall, the report shows a positive trend: The statewide teen birth rate fell in 2010, as did the natonal rate. But West Virginia still ranks among the 10 worst states, with 45 births per 1,000 teens, compared to a national rate of 34.
Hale says it’s time for communities, parents and educators alike to ensure that a comprehensive sex-education curriculum approved and mandated by the state Department of Education in 2003 is actually being taught. She says there’s no solid data to show that it is.
The program for fifth- through 12-graders is “fantastic,” Hale said Monday, largely focusing on self-esteem, decision-making, what to expect from boys and how to say no, and how to avoid risky behaviors such as drug use. Birth control methods are just one component.
“But many schools are not implementing it because the teacher’s not comfortable or the community doesn’t want them to or the principal doesn’t want them to,” Hale said.
Though she can understand a teacher’s reluctance to discuss sex, Hale says the state has specialists to help.
State education officials could not immediately say what percentage of schools use the curriculum, and McDowell Superintendent Nelson Spencer didn’t immediately comment on his district.
For decades, teen births had been decreasing in West Virginia and nationally. But the state numbers started rising again between 2005 and 2009. The problem is now particularly acute in eight southern and central counties: McDowell, Mingo, Clay, Boone, Fayette, Calhoun, Merce and Logan.
McDowell, plagued by high unemployment, poverty and drug abuse, also has the state’s highest infant mortality rate at 16 per 1,000 live births, the report says. That’s a 50 percent increase from 2005.
And it has the state’s second-highest rate of child abuse and neglect, with 46 cases per 1,000 children. That’s up 39 percent from 2005, the report says.
McDowell also ranks worst in West Virginia for births to women and girls with less than a 12th-grade education at 31 percent and worst for children living in poverty at 45 percent.
For the past year, educators, government agencies, private companies and nonprofits have focused on McDowell, hoping to improve the school system and address other, chronic problems created by the economic challenges.
The Reconnecting McDowell initiative is a year old and has made some progress in expanding broadband access, literacy programs and health services. Teen pregnancy is one of the areas it hopes to eventually tackle, along with dropout rates, substance abuse, poor nutrition and a lack of physical activity.
Hale says giving teen girls a vision of a “credible vision of a positive future” is critical to reversing the trend.
“A large factor contributing to teen pregnancy there is teenagers having no sense of themselves in the future,” she said. “They have no career goals. They have no sense of how to get education, training, jobs. ... That kind of thinking makes you slip into risky behaviors.”
More than a third of McDowell residents live in poverty, and median incomes are less than half the U.S. average.
The county ranks last in the state in many other health measures, with a premature death rate nearly double the state average and high rates of physical inactivity, adult smoking and obesity. It has also led the U.S. in fatal prescription painkiller overdoses.