Jeannette Pai-Espinosa: invest in female teens

(WOMENSENEWS)–A June 23 ABC Primetime special called "Family Secrets" did a good job of presenting the issues and challenges of one segment of the teen parent population.

Nearly all the stories shared in the special were of young mothers with family support to help them face the trials and to share in the joys.

For these young parents, an unintended pregnancy was the result of absent, forgotten or malfunctioning birth control in the life of an otherwise "average" or even "model" young adult. Still, even for these teens, we saw in ABC’s special how hard it is for them to make it all work.

For other young parents, however, a birth control failure is the most recent misfortune in a lifetime of poverty, abuse, neglect, addiction and violence. Traumatic experiences have left these young people searching high and low for safety, belonging, love and support. And sometimes, creating a family seems like the only way to get it.

Moreover, in many cases teen pregnancy is a long family tradition. We refer to these young women as young mothers at the margin, because they live at the edge of the American dream, working to break the destructive cycles into which they were born.

There isn’t any meaningful dialogue about addressing the deeply rooted social issues faced by this population.

Largely Invisible

They remain out of sight and largely invisible.

It’s not because they are a rarity.

Each year thousands of young women and men become parents with no support system and no means of providing for their family.

In 2006, there were more than 350,000 unmarried teenage mothers ages 14 to 18 in the United States, and many of them wind up parenting alone.

Meanwhile, funding for services and programs to support them and their children continues to disappear.

California public health officials say proposed budget cuts could hurt or end the state’s Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health Program, which provides care for high-risk women and teenagers during pregnancy and for up to one year after giving birth, according to the Press-Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif.

Focusing significant national energy, work and resources on young mothers at the margin is the right thing to do.

A Solid Investment

It’s also a good investment. Young mothers need the chance to develop new skills and relationships so they can learn how to become good parents who are personally and financially self-sufficient.

If we don’t provide them the support, no one will, and we will never be able to reduce the intergenerational poverty and reliance on public programs.

We know what works: social support, education and good jobs, made possible by high-quality health care, childcare, affordable housing and reliable transportation.

Young mothers and their children have much to offer this country as part of the work force, volunteers and dedicated parents.

We don’t need to look any further than President Obama to see how a young mother with the support of her family can change the world. Imagine a country where all young mothers had the same support.

Jeannette Pai-Espinosa is president of The National Crittenton Foundation, which supports the empowerment of vulnerable girls, young women and their families. For more information, visit