Fewer teens are having babies, but those who do face some tough barriers

Teen birth rates in Calgary are slowly declining. But for many teen moms, raising a child is still a difficult path.

To help ease the transition from childhood to parenthood the Louise Dean Centre has implemented a three-year demonstration project. Students attending Louise Dean may be eligible to receive grants to help them manage their expenses while in school, said Holly Charles, director of operations for Catholic Family Service of Calgary.

The Louise Dean Centre is a high school for pregnant or parenting teens run by the Calgary Board of Education, Catholic Family Service and Alberta Health Services.

A steady decline

Shannon Russell, 22, found out she was pregnant at age 16.

She had dropped out of high school a year earlier to curb her drug addiction in rehab. Three months after she was clean she found out she was pregnant. On Feb. 14, 2008 she gave birth to her daughter Rylie.

A report published in the summer of 2011 by the United Way of Calgary and Area suggests that in 2007, Calgary’s teen birth rate was 12.8. Essentially this means that for every 1000 teens aged 15-19 in Calgary, about 13 of them will give birth to a child in their adolescence.

There has been a significant decrease in teen birth rates in Calgary over the past couple decades. Alberta Health Services published a compilation of data that shows this trend.

• In 1997, the teen birth rate for Calgary was 19.1.
• In 2000, the teen birth rate for Calgary was 16.7.
• In 2004, the teen birth rate for Calgary was 11.1.
• In 2007, (most recent available data) the teen birth rate for Calgary was 12.8.
The decline in teen birth rates may be due to an increased awareness young people have about unplanned pregnancy and pregnancy prevention, said Deborah Bartlett, director of strategic outreach for United Way of Calgary and Area.

But for the teens who choose to raise a child, it is important that they have a strong support system, Charles said.

Russell sought support for her schooling and enrolled at the Louise Dean Centre while she was pregnant with Rylie. Charles said the Louise Dean Centre currently helps about 142 students who are returning, new, pregnant and parenting.

She said, “We really don’t want young women sitting at home with their babies at 17 or 18, and then deciding to go back to school because they ‘age out’.”

Charles said school is free for anyone under the age of 19 as of Sept. 1, and after that they have to look into the adult system. She said when teen moms take an extended parenting break they may not return to high school with sufficient time to graduate before they ‘age out.’

But getting to school is a problem for many teen moms.Amidst the decline in teen birth rates, Calgary teen moms are still finding it difficult to raise children at such a young age.

Photo courtesy of Roberto Pecino/ www.robertopecino.com

Transportation

When Russell was pregnant with her child she didn’t have her license and was forced to take Calgary Transit. She said bus drivers often wouldn’t stop to pick her up or they wouldn’t allow her on with her stroller.

“We were going to school with six week old babies in -30 degree weather, being left outside for two to three hours just trying to get to school and back,” she said.

Charles said she is aware that some young women wait for the bus for at least an hour, but because the moms aren’t grouped anywhere in the city, she is not able to implement a busing system.

However, Louise Dean is strategically situated in West Hillhurst near Kensington Road, said Charles. It runs on the No. 1 bus line, which travels from Forest Lawn to Bowness. Charles said that if a person can get downtown then they could get to Louise Dean.

“CBE (Calgary Board of Education) for the most part doesn’t do busing for high schools, most kids take local transit,” she said.

There is no rule in the Calgary Transit Bylaw that says you can’t bring a stroller onboard as long as it folds and doesn’t block the main path. However, on July 30, 2012 the bylaw was amended and non-folding strollers are now permitted as long as there is still space for other passengers to get by.

United Way has tried to help teen moms with transportation. Bartlett said they have raised over $5,000 in transit passes and gift cards that went towards the many agencies United Way funds.

Bartlett said they plan on doing another collection drive on Nov. 21 from 11 a.m. till 1 p.m. at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre. The event will feature a discussion around philanthropy and leadership by a panel of four female Calgarian leaders. Attendees are asked to bring gift cards to contribute to United Way’s teen mom plan.

Troubling finances

Russell’s difficulty getting to school also impacted her wallet.

“Since I had so many problems with Calgary Transit my funding would often get pulled, and I would have to work crazy shifts waitressing to come up with my rent and daycare money to be able to stay in school,” she said.

Russell received funding through Alberta Works, which is a program that helps Albertans with low incomes cover the basic costs of living. One of their requirements was that she attended school. But since Russell didn’t always make it on time she said she has had to repay $14,000.

She ended up dropping out of Louise Dean twice to work full time because she couldn’t financially afford it.

Charles said this past September the Louise Dean Centre implemented a three-year demonstration project called a Learner’s Bursary. Students attending Louise Dean may be eligible to receive grants to help them manage their expenses while in school.

“One of our outcomes is to keep these women in school, and finances are always one of the biggest issues that prevents them from coming to school,” Charles said.

Discrimination

Teen mom Amanda Palmer had her child at 19. She said the discrimination she received from being a young mom was hard to handle at times.

“People judge young moms, and being a single young mom is even worse because then people think that its just a one night kind of thing, but people never find out the real story,” she said.

Russell had a similar experience. She said she often had strangers asking how old she was and lecturing her on her way to school.

She said, “How many girls have had an abortion and not gone through with it? And they don’t get this sort of open discrimination.”

Charles says Catholic Family Service and Louise Dean helps young moms deal with negative comments like these.

While Russell may not have had the easiest time juggling motherhood and going to school, she is now happily married with two kids. She said she is also currently going through the application process for a bachelor of health sciences at the University of Calgary.

jfoster@cjournal.ca