Teen moms: A 'Safe Journey' or slip through the cracks? - | WBTV Charlotte

Teen moms: A 'Safe Journey' or slip through the cracks?

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) -

Over 1,100 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in Mecklenburg County either have a baby or are pregnant, according to the most recent numbers compiled by the State of North Carolina.

If you compare that to how many 15-to-19-year-old girls are in Mecklenburg County, it averages out to 3.5% of girls in that age group are teen moms.

Multiple counties have a higher percentage -- over 7% of the teenage girls in Onslow and Scotland Counties are either pregnant or have a child. 

"We've signed a pledge that by 2030, we want this number cut in half," said Judy Sanders-Bull, who works for Safe Journey.

Safe Journey is a program that assists teen parents with staying in high school, getting their degree, delaying an additional pregnancy and helping create a connection between the mother and her child, to give that child more of a chance.

"We've made remarkable strides already," Sanders-Bull continued.  "Without intervention support there is a 60% chance these girls will have a second baby as a teenager.  But between 98%-100% of the girls we work with graduate from high school, and 100% of them have stayed away from getting pregnant again.  We're proud of that."

Safe Journey is a little-known program in ten Charlotte Mecklenburg High Schools... it's part of a well-known bigger mentoring program called "Communities in Schools", or, more commonly, CIS.

WEB EXTRA: Find out more about CIS here

Safe Journey is 100% funded by Smart Start of Mecklenburg County.

"We work with 80 girls," Sanders-Bull said. "We wish we could serve more because there’s a huge need, but we're doing what we can. When these girls are referred to us they're either already pregnant or parenting.  We provide home visits, and can assist with daycare, education and keeping the moms on track. We also assist these babies so by the time they're ready to be of school age, they're academically, socially and emotionally ready to go."

Sanders-Bull said that last part about the babies is key.

"There is exactly 2000 days from when a child is born until they are eligible to enter kindergarten," she said. "It's a very critical 2000 days of a child's life. Children learn more quickly here than any other time. They need love and nurturing to develop a sense of trust and security, to turn into confidence as they grow. We've made that part of our mission."

As for the teen moms, Sanders-Bull says an assumption is often made about who these girls are, and the choices they made.

"It's not that these girls decide, 'I think I'm going to get pregnant today'," Sanders-Bull said. "It's not that at all. They all have a story that is many times more profound than a lot of us might think."

MOBILE USERS: Click here for the NC Teen Pregnancy Data Map

One reason Sanders-Bull says she believes teen girls are getting pregnant is a lack of education.

"We don't want to talk about it," she said. "Parents don't want to talk about it. The school system doesn't want to talk about it. Everyone wants to pass the buck."

We called CMS to ask about its sexual education policy... at what age and what grade are lessons being taught?

We got a formal response.

"CMS follows the standards set out by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction,” said a spokesman.  “The NC DPI outlines the curriculum for all NC public schools to follow, under the course outline of Healthful Living, which provides age/grade appropriate curriculum at all levels.”

WEB EXTRA: The spokesman also sent this NCDPI link to get specifics

If you go into that link and click on healthful living you can then scroll through each section to see what standards are being taught for each age.

For example, in 3rd-5th grade, CMS is “differentiating between accurate and inaccurate sources of information about puberty and development and summarizing the functions of the male and female reproductive systems.”

In 6th-8th grade, CMS will “summarize the relationship between conception and the menstrual cycle” and “evaluate methods of FDA-approved contraceptives in terms of their safety and their effectiveness in preventing unintended pregnancy” and “select family, school, and community resources for the prevention of sexual risk taking through abstinence and safer sex practices.”

In 9th-12th grade, the lessons include, “illustrating skills related to safe and effective use of methods to prevent STDs as well as how to access resources for testing and treatment.”

You can go to the link above to see other descriptions of what state standards CMS says it uses to teach its over 140,000 students.

"I believe we are waiting too late to talk about it," Sanders-Bull said. "That's a dreadful mistake. I think some version should be taught in elementary school, around 5th grade. And as they get older I think comprehensive sex education should be taught. Not just abstinence.  These kids are sexually active. It's amazing what they know - and some of it is just plain wrong because no one is telling them differently."

Twenty-seven-year-old Steffanie Lewis agrees. She is a case worker for Safe Journey and works with 20 individual teen moms. Among other things, she does two home visits a month for each girl and works closely with them on what they have going on in school.

"Each girl has different needs," she says. "I can say from experience, the education piece here is critical as to why these girls are getting pregnant. I don't think enough is being said.  Education needs to go further. It needs to be raw."

Lewis says social media plays a big role.

"These girls have access to everything," Lewis said.  "They're at a curious age and can see things through their phones, always at their fingertips."

Lewis says her job can be intense.

"We're working with children in society, who are raising children in society," she said.

What does she say to someone who says it's the girl's fault?

"If they knew everyone's story, they wouldn't say that," Lewis said confidently. "I work with some girls who were raped, who never actually made any choice. I also work with some whose parents did take precautions and the girls were on birth control and they still got pregnant."

Suzanne Hunt, a career advisor who works with various teens in Communities in Schools (not just pregnant teens), said there are just a lot of social issues that come into play.

"I work with teenagers who have a lot of responsibility," Hunt said. "Many of the teens in our schools are surviving on their own or supporting or caretaking others. They're dealing with so much that the 'education piece' can get lost in the fray."

WBTV met up with a group of teen moms involved in Safe Journey at a research-based exhibit called "BLOCK Fest".  It was event at a local church, where moms brought their babies for free health screenings, music, and activities that helped raise awareness of early math and science lessons.

West Charlotte senior Teeka Taylor brought her 1-year-old daughter Jamiyra.

"It's not easy having a baby," said Taylor. "But her dad is involved and I have a good support system behind me."

Taylor -- who described herself as mature and independent -- says being a mom changed her because she is now expected to be an adult, and is treated like one everyday.

"We all make mistakes," she said.  "But Jamiyra is smart. She's my future doctor."

Sixteen-year-old Catera Green, a student at Performance Learning Center, agrees about parenthood throwing you into adulthood. She has an 8-month-old daughter named Layla.

"I'm trying to graduate early, next year," Green said. "I want to go college. I want to become a registered nurse. This program has introduced me to other opportunities in life that will help us."

After Green said that, we pointed out her use of the word, "us", instead of "me."

"I'm 16 years old, but my life isn't solo," she said gently. "Before Safe Journey I didn't have daycare and I had to stay home from school to watch her.  My life is now hers.  I'm grateful to be here."

Sanders-Bull said Safe Journey has multiple success stories. She's happy to rattle them off.

"We have moms that go on to college and graduate with their 4-year degrees," Sanders-Bull said. "And two that are now working as registered nurses.  And they all are still only parenting their one child..."

But, it is a tough population. There are teen moms who slip through the cracks.  One is Delia Freeman, a girl who was a junior last spring at South Mecklenburg High School. She had invited WBTV to talk with her about life with then-8-week-old, Alayah.  We met up with her and her baby inside South Meck the week of her finals.

"I want to finish high school, that's my main priority," Delia told us with a smile.  "But my mom died two years ago after complications from cancer. So I was scared to tell my dad. I was like 'who's gonna help me?'. I don't have a mom in my life so it was weird. At first I didn't know who to really talk with about what goes on."

She says she eventually turned to her aunt, her boyfriend's mom and then Safe Journey came calling.

When we spoke in June, she was happy and hopeful.

Fast forward a few months, and Delia can't be found. She's no longer going to school, isn't picking up the phone and isn't at the set locations Safe Journey had listed for home visits.

Hunt, the career advisor for CIS, works specifically with South Meck. She knows Delia.

"To some degree we feel like we let her down," she said. "We know she was very encouraged to end school and move forward. We want to find a way to bring her back into the fold. Delia, if you're watching this or reading this, our door is always open. We would really like for you to come back and let us help you and Alayah."

Yes, says Sanders-Bull.  Please call.

"By all accounts it seemed like everything was going well," she said. "It's heart-breaking that no one seems to know where she is now."

Sanders-Bull said most girls they work with don't "slip through the cracks", but the entire concept of Safe Journey was founded on a case like Delia.  It was back in 1998 and someone realized 398 pregnant girls in the CMS system were missing or unaccounted for. No one could get in touch with them or knew where they were. 

"I see this as a high-quality program and wish we had the resources to have this kind of program in every school in Mecklenburg County," Sanders-Bull said.  "This is the 17th year and I can tell you most of our girls get their diploma and less than five percent have a repeat pregnancy since we started, so I know we're making a difference."

For more information on Safe Journey, go to the CIS website. Or, email Judy Sanders-Bull directly at jsanders-bull@cischarlotte.org.

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