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Yanisha Claudio, 15, of Hartford tenderly swaddled 3-week-old Jordan, hoping he wouldn't wake up.
"He was crying until four o'clock in the morning," said the weary Bulkeley High School freshman.
It's been a tough year for Claudio, whose boyfriend broke up with her after a trip to the emergency room confirmed she was more than five months pregnant. Living at home, Claudio juggles the demands of being a mother and a student with help from a daily tutor, a case worker who visits weekly, and the baby's grandmother, a former teen mother herself.
"I never thought this would happen to me," Claudio said. "I don't know anything about being a mother."
Hispanic teen birth rates in Connecticut are 8.5 times higher than whites' and almost double that of African Americans for girls ages 15 to 19. Of the 2,626 teen births in 2009, almost half (1,277) were to Hispanics, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.
Of the 35 teen births in 2009 in New London, 15 were to Hispanic girls, according to DPH data.
In Connecticut, 84 percent of births to teen mothers (ages 15 to 19) in 2009 were to low-income mothers enrolled in the publicly subsidized HUSKY or Medicaid health plans. The number of births to teens in these programs remains steady, immune to the declines statewide and nationally.
"We need to figure out what we're not doing, because what we are doing clearly isn't working," said Candida Flores, executive director of Family Life Education, a Hartford agency that assists pregnant and parenting teens. Flores, who had her first child at 15, knows the challenges firsthand.
"Many of the girls we serve are in situations where pregnant teens are the norm," she said. "Many are the daughters of teenage moms who are still struggling with their own issues. We end up helping both generations of mothers."
Advocates hope $6.4 million in federal funds targeting at-risk Hispanic and African-American teens in the state's poorest cities will make a difference by reaching youth in ways that resonate with their culture and language.
But many experts say little will change until the state has the financial resources and political will to address the underlying issues - poverty, domestic violence, education achievement gaps, unemployment - that impact Hispanic youth.
Complicating matters are language and cultural factors that research shows put Hispanics at greater risk of becoming parents, experts say. These run the gamut from strictly defined gender roles and machismo, to religious beliefs that ban contraception and abortion.
Growing community, many needs
At 13 percent of the state's population, the Hispanic community is growing at a dramatic rate - by almost 50 percent during the past decade - and experiencing increasing social and health inequities.
Almost a third of Hispanic children ages 17 and younger live in poverty. Almost 22 percent of all Hispanics have no health insurance. The state's Hispanics had the third highest unemployment rate in the nation in 2010, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Hispanics had a four-year high school graduation rate of 64 percent in 2010, according to state Department of Education data.
The five cities with the highest teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates - Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven and Waterbury - accounted for half of all teen births in 2009.
Studies show teen parents are more likely to drop out of school and live in poverty, while babies born to teen parents are at a higher risk for low birth weight and infant mortality.
"All the indicators for Latinos in Connecticut point to a community in crisis," said Werner Oyanadel, acting executive director of the state Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
As a public health issue, teen childbearing cost state taxpayers at least $137 million in 2008 for public health care, child welfare, incarceration and lost tax revenue due to decreased earnings and spending, reports the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
"People who don't believe we should focus on teenage pregnancy because it's the right thing to do should think about their wallets because society pays a price one way or another," Dr. Raul Pino, acting director of Hartford's Department of Health and Human Services, said.
The Department of Social Services spends about $2 million a year on teen-pregnancy prevention in 13 communities where teen birth rates exceed the state average. New London's Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut and Norwich's Uncas Health District are participants.
"These programs help teens develop self esteem and self worth so they can make better choices and see themselves outside of their community," said LoriBeth Young, lead planning analyst with the Bureau of Aging, Community and Social Work Services at DSS. "Teens living in limited communities often have a difficult time seeing their lives outside the few blocks they live in unless they are shown it's possible. They don't see themselves with bright futures."
In New London, the Board of Education voted this month to allow the health clinic at New London High School to distribute birth control pills and condoms to students who have parental consent. The center already provides pregnancy tests and treats sexually transmitted diseases, but never handed out contraception before.
"It was not an easy decision to make but the only one that was responsible when you look at the alarming rate of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy among our youth," said Liz Garcia Gonzalez, vice president of the New London Board of Education and executive director of Centro de la Comunidad of New London.
"Abstinence is what many parents want their children to practice. But we know that is not really happening," she said. As a mother of teenagers, Garcia Gonzalez understands those who "believe parents should talk about these things at home. But we have to be realistic, too. Parents are working with extra jobs. Kids are home alone. Some are already sexually active. We need to protect kids because we're seeing children having children."
"New London is a small city with big city problems," said JoAnn Eaccarino, MS, APRN, associate director of School Based Programs for the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, a regional social service agency that helps children and families at-risk. The agency operates school-based health clinics in four towns, including New London. It also runs the Young Parents Program, which assists pregnant and parenting teens, and the Teen Outreach Program, a pregnancy prevention program aimed at seventh and eighth graders.
The Young Parents Program includes a community outreach worker who speaks Spanish to assist the growing number of Hispanic teens giving birth.
"There was a shift in the make-up of kids becoming parents about 15 years ago," said Eaccarino. "Hispanic girls were having babies and dropping out of school to stay home with their babies or their families were taking care of the babies. The nursery at the school wasn't being used and eventually closed."
This story was reported by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team (www.c-hit.org), under an agreement with The Day.