CHICKASAW COUNTY – The father often plays a shadowy role in the bulk of teen pregnancies, but the numbers show that when men are active fathers the child, the mother and the man all do better.
There was a day and age of shotgun weddings and social rules that said a boy and girl who got pregnant were obliged to get married and share the burden and joy of raising a child, but in today’s increasingly liberal society that is rarely the case.
“When I was growing up, if you got pregnant you got married,” said Susan Allen, counselor at Houston High School. “That’s not the case today.
“The guys is usually out of the picture for a lot of different reasons,” Allen explained. “I will also point out there are not a lot of programs and resources out there for boys who get a girl pregnant.”
Allen said she routinely has girls come by her office for council and information when they find out they are pregnant.
“The boys – never,” said Allen. “I think I can remember one conversation with a young father about his child.”
Zettie Johnson, counselor at Okolona High School said young men are thinking about buying cars and getting a place to live and rarely worry about the cost of diapers, baby food and doctor visits.
“Most boys are absent fathers,” said Johnson. “I will admit that I had one boy graduate, get a job at the Nissan plant in Jackson and I understand he is providing financial support and still sees his child – but that is the exception and not the rule.”
Both Johnson and Allen said most teenage boys have no idea how to care for a baby and even fewer realize what their presence in their child’s life means.
One Chickasaw County agency with the goal of helping parents and specifically fathers is Baby Steps in Okolona. The agency was founded by former Okolona native and Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, who had a passion for urging young black men to be the leader of their home and to push their children to read, work hard and be responsible for all their actions.
“William Raspberry had a mother and father who pushed him and he realized their value,” said Aisha Goen, Executive Director of Baby Steps. “He felt African American men had given up their role as leader of the home and wanted to see them take it back.”
Goens said Baby Steps has a number of programs aimed at families and several aimed by African-American men and boys.
“Many African-American men were raised in a home where the father was absent and so they didn’t have anyone to show them the ropes,” said Goens. “They think changing diapers is womens’ work and it’s just easier for them to stay away than to get involved in the life of their child.”
Goens said Baby Steps doesn’t teach dads how to change diapers, but it does teach them how to read to their children.
“Getting dad back in the picture is not easy,” said Goens. “We are chipping away at the edges and just trying to get them to spend time with their children.”
Baby Steps hosts “Fishing with Fathers” each spring and its reading program is aimed at getting books – and dads – in the home.
“Our book program is more about relationships,” said Goens. “Every study I have ever seen shows that children whose dads read to them and are involved in their lives at just about any level are less likely to drop out of school, less likely to do drugs, less likely to go to prison and less likely to get pregnant – or get someone pregnant – as a teenager.”
And for dads who won’t own up to the responsibility of a teen pregnancy, there are laws that can make them take care of their child.
Mississippi has a law where any mother can force the daddy of her child to take a blood test to confirm paternity and then sue him for child support.
Mississippi also has a law requiring hospitals to take umbilical cord blood from any child born to a 16-year-old girl to be used to determine paternity and prosecute the father. This law became effective this past summer.
The law also makes the father responsible for paying for the paternity test which routinely cost $1,000.
But Chickasaw County Investigator Andy Harmon said determining paternity is not always easy and he said the law is is not clear and simple.
“If a girl has had four or five sexual contacts, it can be hard to find the father and then get the case in court and a verdict rendered,” said Harmon. “And the law dealing with statutory rape is very complex. After you determine paternity the age of the girl and the age of the boy determine under what law you are going to prosecute the case.”
Harmon said he has mothers, fathers and pregnant girls call him all too regularly trying to find out what the law says.
“I think people need to be married before they have children and that would solve a lot of this,” said Harmon. “Sadly, that isn’t the real world and that’s where law enforcement and the District Attorney have to get involved.”
Harmon said there are several general rules of thumb:
• Pregnancies where the father is two years older than the mother – and the mother is under 18 — can be prosecuted as statutory rape. The sentence for a conviction can range from 10 to 20 years.
• Pregnancies where the mother is under age 16 and the father is 17 or older can also be prosecuted as statutory rape with enhanced sentencing. The sentence for a conviction in this age bracket can range from 15 years to life in prison.
And the larger the age gap the stiffer the sentence tends to be.
A report produced by the Mississippi Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force said 40 percent of all teen pregnancies in the state are fathered by men over age 20.
The state also has a law requiring a women to name the father of her child if she is to receive social services, food stamps or a welfare check.
But social workers rarely check up or confirm the paternity and when they do, that is when law enforcement usually gets involved, blood tests are ordered and lawyers hired. Again the process of determining paternity is cumbersome for social workers and time consuming for law enforcement and prosecutors.
“At Baby Steps we ask for the name of the father on just about every form we fill out on a child,” said Goens. “That line is usually left blank.”
Goens said naming a father is a very personal piece of information and most girls are hesitant to write down a name.
“I don’t think it is because they don’t know who the dad is,” said Goens. “I just think the nature of any pregnancy is a very personal experience. The girl may still have feelings for this guy and she doesn’t want to get him in trouble.”
A 2011 report from the Mississippi Economic Policy Center and the Women’s Fund found teen births cost Mississippi $155 million in 2009.
That same study showed 80 percent of teen moms will receive welfare assistance and public health care at some point.
Only 40 percent of teen moms finish high school; about a third of female dropouts cite pregnancy and parenthood as the reason for leaving school. Less than 2 percent finish college.
The human cost is staggering, and Governor Phil Bryant said there are long term consequences for Mississippi if the state doesn’t make more substantial progress in combating teen pregnancy.
“If our teens continue to fail and drop out of school and struggle with not just one child, but perhaps two or three as a teenage mom then we will not have the workforce capable of bringing in the Yokohama tire companies and the Toyotas and the Nissans and the GEs,” Bryant said at an August community forum in Tupelo. “It won’t exist any more. There will be a finite number of educated children in this state that we can go out and say to companies bring your new high-tech, advanced manufacturing industry here because we have the workforce to do it.
We’re going to have to turn this around.”