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Teen pregnancy prevention program goes wanting for money
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MVNA public health nurse Jennifer Pulford counsels pregnant teenagers. "There's a lot of conflict in their own families, so I try and be a very non-judgmental person," Pulford says. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)
A successful Minnesota program that helps teenage mothers stay in school and not get pregnant again has been hit by state budget cuts. The program, which is run by the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency, is losing more than half its funds. The irony is the program has been widely recognized as a success.

St. Paul, Minn. — Proponents held on to hope until the very last that Minnesota lawmakers this session might restore some money to the program. However, the proponents knew a year ago the likelihood of that happening was small.

Minnesota Department of Health fiscal policy director Margaret Kelly says when federal funds for the program went away several years ago, Minnesota lawmakers stepped in with state funds. Kelly says county officials have known for some time that the state money is going away next month.

"The cliff is still out there and we're at the cliff right now," Kelly says. "So, the end of this fiscal year we'll drop from having $11 million a year for these activities to only $4 (million)."

One of the teenagers helped by the program is 16-year-old, "Lucy," who doesn't want her real name used. She was 4 months pregnant before she learned of her condition.

We're going to pay consequences down the line ... when we could have done some things that, in the long run, would have saved taxpayers dollars ... that we could have done some things that would have helped make people more self-sufficient.
- Mary Ann Blade, CEO of Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency

"I was really shocked and scared. I was not able to tell my mom or anybody because they didn't understand," says Lucy. "And my mom kept on scaring me -- that if I was pregnant she was going to kill me."

A Minneapolis high school counselor put Lucy in touch with the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency. The MVNA is a private, non-profit organization that has been around for 100 years. One of its highest-profile public health programs is giving flu shots at supermarkets around the Twin Cities. MVNA nurses also screen poor people for a range of public health problems.

Lucy was paired with MVNA public health nurse Jennifer Pulford, one of the organization's 14 nurses who counsel more than 700 pregnant young women. The budget cut means hundreds of them -- agency officials say they don't know a precise number -- won't get counseling.

Pulford says she tells the young women about healthful eating habits, and how to avoid another pregnancy. Pulford says she and other nurses encourage the teenage mothers to stay in school.

"There's a lot of conflict in their own families, so I try and be a very non-judgmental person," Pulford says. "It takes maybe four or five visits before I feel the teen has connected with me. So it takes a lot of persistence in the beginning."

Many of the teens, Pulford says, have chaotic home lives. She brings them maternity clothing, cribs and other supplies to help care for their babies.

The St. Paul-based Wilder Research Center evaluated the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency program. Scientist Richard ChaseHe says a higher than average number of the teens counseled by the agency's nurses stay in school, and very few got pregnant again.

"They were able to have three or more visits with 68 percent of teens they enrolled," Chase says. "You would often lose more than half after one or two visits if you have a really high-risk group, so they were really able to connect to with these young moms, these pregnant moms."

When she learned she was pregnant, Lucy ran away from home to live with the father, another teenager. But she says he was abusive, and she worried about the safety of the baby. Now Lucy is back with her parents, caring for her baby, and is still in school where she's a top student. She starts her final year in high school this fall and says she plans to graduate and go to college.

"I'm going to be the model for my baby. If I drop out of school ... a higher percent of teen moms who give birth to girls, their girls will become teen moms themselves," she says, "so I don't want my baby to go the path I went."

Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency CEO Mary Ann Blade says cutting the teen mother counseling program may be expensive. She says it will cost taxpayers more if the teen moms drop out, get pregnant again and go on welfare.

"We're going to pay consequences down the line, from emergency room use to having worse results -- when we could have done some things that, in the long run, would have saved taxpayers dollars if that was the interest," Blade says. "But also from a human being perspective and human spirit perspective, that we could have done some things that would have helped make people more self-sufficient."

The number of babies born to young women in this country is rising because the population is growing. However, the rate of teen pregnancy among nearly all ethnic groups has declined by double digits during the 1990s.

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