Not that long ago, a teen-age girl who found herself pregnant usually also found herself far removed from her family, community and school, away on a "vacation" or "off helping an ailing relative." For just over a decade now, statistics show a severe decrease in pregnancy rates in girls ages 15 through 19, which has led to drastic decreases in funding and services at Boise's only local residential school for pregnant girls. But has the social stigma surrounding teen-age pregnancy really lifted to the point where such schools are no longer needed?
"When I graduated from high school in 1985, one girl got pregnant and it was truly a scandal," said Silvana Stoll, head counselor at Borah High School. "Nowadays it's not a scandal. It can be very upsetting because people worry about teens who get pregnant, but I don't think it's scandalous at all anymore."
Others disagree about the degree of stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy. "By some segments of society, yes (teen pregnancy is stigmatized), but by some the answer is no," says Nina Wrigley, a parent educator at Scism Teen-Parent alternative school in Nampa. "There are still some segments of society where there is a stigma of being a teen parent. I wouldn't go so far to say that a majority of people have changed, but a lot want to help these girls and think what we provide is well worth it." Scism is one of several schools in the Boise area that still provide non-residential services to teen parents, including day-care for young girls with children, important since more girls are deciding against adoption.
"I think it's more acceptable for a young girl to give a baby up for adoption for her own choice, where in the past the family forced adoption," says Shelli Rambo Roberson of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention. "So is it becoming more socially acceptable? Probably yes, in the sense a girl is not banned from school. You can't take a girl out of school now, and I think you used to not be able to remain in school once a girl began showing." Still, Roberson cautions that a teenage mother's outlook may be as bad as than ever. "Education has become more important nowadays and without it a person is destined for a life of poverty. You are way more destined for that ... by having a teen pregnancy. That's a statistic."
Outright "bans" aside, according to Deborah Hedden-Nicely, head instructor at the Marian Pritchett School at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Center, "Girls tell me that there is still a stigma when they are out and about in the community." The Pritchett school opened as a home for unwed mothers in 1921, and since 1959 has been helping mothers up to age 21 to finish their high school educations and combat the "destiny" described by Roberson. While the school is no longer the only option in town for the girls, Hedden-Nicely says some negative attitudes persist. "What I'm getting from my students is they feel judged. Some of the girls who come from traditional high schools say there was a shift in how they were treated and looked upon."
According to statistics from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies, only about 10 percent of teen mothers between 15 and 17 years old graduated from high school in 2002. Hedden-Nicely estimates the number in her experience to be near two-thirds, and says the chances depend largely on the support the girls receive from their families. "Most of my girls now do live with their families. They like the program because the girls can get a high school diploma, which helps them beat the odds they'll live in poverty. They also get hooked up with a lot of good resources."
But funding for programs at the Pritchett School has been whittled away for years. Most recently, the school's dormitories closed, and counseling services were pared down drastically.
"It's a problem of cognitive dissonance," Hedden-Nicely said. "You get used to lacking services. It's been a major reduction over the years. As to why the Salvation Army got out of providing the dorms for kids, I think the cultural mores have changed. It's true there are always going to be pregnant teens, but you need to educate them, you need to ensure they are getting all the social services they need to have a healthy baby. In the long run that will cost a lot of money also."
The Salvation Army's support of the school is funded through both through the state and private donations. The agency had funded several dormitory-style schools throughout the country, but began closing them around 15 years ago as funding sources started to disappear. The Pritchett School was kept open through a collaborative effort between the school and the Boise School District, but it still felt the pinch.
"When I first started teaching at the school 35 years ago, there were two cooks that provided hot meals all day," recently retired teacher Diana Scott told BW. "Two or three nurses were on duty around the clock. They had a handyman, a housekeeper, a social worker and staff that worked at night. As I understand, there was less and less money from the state to assist in housing those kids. So about 15 or so years ago, as people retired, they didn't fill those positions. Five years ago, (the Salvation Army) stopped providing food. They stopped putting toilet paper in the bathrooms, which I thought was a pretty harsh statement. The district stepped up to provide a janitor and toilet paper, and sent school lunches and a snack. But I thought it was pretty plain that (the Salvation Army) wasn't willing or able to support the school program like they had in the past."
Tom Shanahan with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare told BW the department appropriated about $228,000 to the Salvation Army last year to fund the school, from a grant from the federal government. The department began questioning the efficiency of the Booth Center's dormitories and inpatient care about five years ago, he said.
As a result, Capt. Gordon Myers, who, with his wife, shares responsibility of being the core officer and area coordinator for the Salvation Army, said the funding has "been cut in half over the course of three years." Capt. Roberta Myers said the dormitories closed this year because of the decreasing use, which started in 2000. She said only three girls used the facility last year. Hedden-Nicely said that number was nine.
"It's true what they say about the numbers being smaller, but part of that reason is I'm not sure people knew it existed," Hedden-Nicely explained. "Had we been widely known, there could have been more girls in there." She said despite the declining numbers, girls from across the state were still being sent to live at the school by either family or the state, and that in the case of a few, "I'm not sure where those students would go."
In the meantime, the Salvation Army has countered its cuts at the Pritchett school with an expansion of the homeless services at the Booth Center, and has plans to continue the expansion by over 300 percent. The organization has operated a shelter at Booth since 1982, but the expansion has raised the ire of numerous of the Center's North End neighbors who find a homeless shelter more threatening than a dormitory for pregnant girls. According to Hedden-Nicely, however, the same lip-service attitude informs the community's approach to both marginalized groups.
"It gets right down to as a culture, how do we feel about homeless people and pregnant teen-agers? Do we want to help them?" she asks. "If so, we need to back that up with appropriations, because right now we are just putting Band-Aids on the problem."