AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Natalia Moreno remembers overhearing a conversation at school where a pregnant teen was told her life is ruined and that she wouldn’t be able to do anything again. 

“Of course, it upset me,” she said. “That’s actually not true. You can still pursue your dreams. You can still be a great mom. You can still just be who you want to be while being a parent.” 

Moreno knows it’s tough but possible. She got pregnant in middle school and had her son Richard when she was 14. 

“I was able to finish out high school and still be a mother to my son,” she said. 

She graduated from high school in 2018. Her son is now four.  

Natalia Moreno’s son, Richard. (Courtesy: Natalia Moreno)

“It sucks to get pregnant at a young age,” she said. “It does. I’m not going to sugar coat it. It’s just, people have to understand that it happens.” 

A key program that made a difference in her life as an adolescent parent, she says, was Hays CISD’s Pregnancy Education and Parenting (PEP) Program. It serves pregnant students, parenting students, expectant dads and parenting dads. Partnerships with Early Head Start and the Strengthening Relationships/Strengthening Families Program through Texas State University provide a support system at all levels. Transportation to and from school for the students and their babies and a childcare center are among the services that are available. The programs also connect them with case managers and resources like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. 

“We have a really high success rate with our students staying in school and graduating,” Katie Campbell, program coordinator for the PEP Program, said. 

Dr. Norma Perez-Brena, director of Strengthening Relationships/Strengthening Families, says their program provides education on healthy relationships, co-parenting relationships, as well as information around the transition out of high school. That includes education about career options, education options and financial literacy. 

“It allows us to serve both the adolescent and the parent in the equation and the unique needs that come with both being an adolescent and a parent,” Dr. Perez-Brena said. “For example, living in a household where your mom and dad are also living with you, while co-parenting with the father. That means you have two different co-parenting relationships and two different power structures that you have to account for.” 

Moreno says the programs taught her how to use birth control and provided an environment for her son where he was able to learn social skills starting at a young age. 

Experts credit setups like Strengthening Relationships/Strengthening Families and the PEP Program for the ongoing decline of Texas’ teen birth rate. Texas had the largest drop in teen births between 2014 and 2017, according to a recent analysis by the United Health Foundation. Key findings from the 2019 America’s Health Rankings’ Health of Women and Children Report show the teen birth rate nationwide has also decreased. 

Jennifer Biundo, policy analyst for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, says the downward trend points to what she calls “a pretty amazing victory” from a public health perspective. 

“We see a lot of different things that influence teen birth rates and fertility rates in general,” she said. “But one thing we see over and over again is that access to contraception, especially the most effective forms of contraception is really important in giving teens the ability to control their fertility.” 

Texas has seen a decline in the teen birth rate since the early 1990s, but still sees a higher rate than the U.S. Data compiled by the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy shows in 2014, the teen birth rate was 36.3 per 1,000 girls. In 2017, the rate was 31 per 1,000 girls. 

In the 14 years that she’s been with the PEP Program, Campbell says the number of students seeking services has dropped by half.  

But where the Lone Star State still needs work is in repeat teen pregnancies. Texas had the fourth-highest rate of repeat births in the country in 2017.  

“In Texas, almost one in five births to teens are actually not the teen’s first birth,” Biundo said. “They’re the second birth or higher. Because of that, we know that one of the biggest risk factors for future teen pregnancy is a prior teen pregnancy. What that tells us is that if there’s a teen who already has one baby, that teen really needs support, making sure she can access the healthcare and the information she needs to control future fertility.” 

Campbell says the PEP Program strives to reduce and prevent repeat teen births in its students by working closely with counselors. 

“If they stay in school, they’re less likely to have another baby,” she said. “If they drop out, they’re much more likely to have subsequent children, so I think the key is keeping them in school and having the wraparound services to get them to graduation.” 

Moreno’s goal is to be a businesswoman someday. She’s currently working at her father-in-law’s body shop to gain business experience. She also hopes other adolescent parents won’t be afraid to speak up and seek help.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “You’ll be okay. It’s going to be hard at first, but you’ll get through it.”

Programs like Healthy Texas Women and Family Planning help provide healthcare services to Texans. Title X is also a federally funded program that provides reproductive healthcare to low income and uninsured women, men and minors. 

Taking a look at sexual health education

Biundo says the Texas State Board of education is looking to revise the curriculum standards that guide health classes in schools. Over the next few months, there will be hearings dedicated to new curriculum standards surrounding sexual health education. It’s currently not mandated in the state, but if a school does decide to teach it, the focus is on abstinence-only until marriage. 

However, experts are hoping the state will consider “abstinence-plus” sexual health education. 

“That’s sex education that says abstinence is the safest and best choice, but if you’re going to be sexually active, here are some risk reduction methods you can also include,” Biundo said. “Abstinence-plus sex education isn’t just about contraception or preventing STIs. It’s also about really important things like consent, refusal skills and healthy relationships.” 

It’s expected that there will be a vote sometime next fall.