City sets teen birth prevention plan

Pointing to stubbornly high teen birth rates, Baltimore officials, youth advocacy organizations and sex-education groups gathered Friday to announce a new strategy aimed at coordinating disjointed prevention efforts and filling geographic gaps in services to city teens.

About 66 of every 1,000 babies born in Baltimore in 2007 were to teen mothers, almost double the statewide rate, according to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The rates were even higher for the city's African-American and Hispanic mothers.

"Baltimore City recognizes that this is a very important public health issue," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at the gathering. "I hope today is just the beginning of a strong and growing partnership."

A report released Friday calls for greater collaboration among organizations to avoid duplicating services and to fill gaps in coverage. The report was developed in conjunction with the Healthy Teen Network, the city Health Department and the Johns Hopkins University.

Noting that areas with high teen birth rates are often the most poverty-stricken, Dr. Patricia Paluzzi, the head of the Healthy Teen Network, said contraceptive education is less available in poorer neighborhoods.

"There's not much happening in West Baltimore," she said. "There's a lot of room to look at geographic gaps in Baltimore City."

During a question-and-answer session at the meeting, Keiren Havens of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, which offers contraceptive education in city schools, said her organization often gets only one day to cover all the different methods of contraception.

"God forbid you're absent on that one day," Havens said.

Jonathan Brice, executive director of the office of student support and safety for city schools, said there is a fundamental tension between providing comprehensive sex education and fulfilling schools' basic mission.

"Health education is one of those things that is not a core academic function of schools," he said. "Where do you put health education into the day-to-day?"

The solution, some participants said Friday, is persuading the state legislature to pass sex-education regulations that would require more extensive courses on contraception, sexually transmitted infections and family planning. Maryland students must be taught those subjects, but local school systems are charged with choosing the curriculum.

Sensing the political wind at their backs, local advocates believe this may be their moment to make an impact on the state level.

President Barack Obama's administration has made available more funding for comprehensive sex education, including some $75 million under the Office of Adolescent Health.

The city Health Department has applied for some of those funds, up to $4 million a year for five years, to help implement some of the report's recommendations, said Avril Melissa Houston, the assistant commissioner for maternal and child health. The department should find out by early October if it has received the grant.

"The political climate has changed and is more supportive of these efforts," Houston said, noting that the department is also looking into funding from local and national foundations.

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