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Georgia Teen Centers Stay Open, Must Emphasize Abstinence

In mid-September, Georgia's Board of Human Resources which oversees policy for the Georgia Department of Human Resources (DHR) voted to continue funding the state's 30 teen health centers. However, the funding is contingent upon a number of new rules, including an increased focus on abstinence.

The closure of the teen centers was first discussed in October of 2003 when the Board recommended to Governor Sonny Perdue (R) that he close the majority of the Centers, keeping only five open as "pilot projects."

The teen centers were started in 1997 to combat Georgia's high teen pregnancy rate. The centers provide counseling, complete physicals, immunizations, testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STD) and pregnancy. Twenty of the centers also dispense methods of contraception. Despite the Board's suggestions to the contrary, studies have demonstrated that the centers are indeed effective. According to DHR's own research, the pregnancy rate among African-American teens ages15-17 fell 1.6 times more in counties with a teen center than in other counties. Among those ages 18-19, the drop was 3.2 times more than for other counties.1 The decreases in the rate of repeat pregnancies among Africa-American girls in counties with teen centers were even larger.2

The teen centers have come under increased scrutiny since new leadership took over the Board of Human Resources including Bruce Cook, the recently-appointed Chairman. Cook is also the founder and CEO of Choosing the Best Publishing, an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum company. Cook is a prominent national spokesperson for the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry.

Initially, the board cited budget constraints as the main reason for potentially closing the teen centers but board members soon acknowledged that it was really the debate over the teen centers' techniques that led to the funding question. Board members disagreed over the teen centers' prevention activities including the distribution of contraceptives. One Board member who opposed the distribution of contraceptives said, "It sends a confused and mixed message [to teenagers]…If we're going to promote abstinence, it should be abstinence until marriage."3 However, not all the board members agreed. "I want all of them to remain open, and I want to see more of them," said another member.4

In August, a proposal was made to keep the teen centers open but change some of their policies and practices. The DHR adopted a similar but even stricter policy in mid-September. Among the new rules, each teen center must now have a Parental Advisory Committee that will be appointed by the County Board of Health. These committees must adopt bylaws and meet at least quarterly. The teen centers must also offer parental education programs.

One of the most dramatic changes to the teen centers involves abstinence-only-until-marriage programming. The initial proposal from August was more open-ended and said abstinence education must focus on helping adolescents to postpone sexual involvement, develop personal goals, and build the confidence to succeed. However, the final policy adopted now requires that the teen centers must devote at least 50% of their programming to be consistent with the federal criteria for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, according to one source.5

These requirements include teaching that "abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage [is] the expected standard for all school aged children," that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects," and that "bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society."6

The new requirements place further restrictions on condom distribution at the teen centers. The decision to incorporate contraceptives will remain local, and the Parental Advisory Committees, along with public health officials, will help make that decision. If any method of contraception is distributed, accurate information about its limitations must also be provided.

In addition, condoms and other methods of contraception may now only be distributed in a clinical setting by a health care professional. There is some confusion as to what exactly this entails, and many fear that some teen centers that do not have a health professional present will not be able to make condoms available to teens.

Not all Board members agreed with these changes. One Board member voiced her opposition to the new contraception policy saying she worries that allowing only health care professionals to distribute contraception would adversely affect teens by denying center staff the opportunity to discuss safer sex practices. She explained, "Sometimes, the person dealing with that teenager has that moment in time to grab the attention of that teenager."7

These changes have also enraged many in the community. Ann Mintz, the policy director for the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention said she disagreed with these new restrictions and believed they could be especially difficult for teens who come from single-parent families. "In effect they are telling you that you and your family really aren't very good. They're saying, 'Here's the way it's supposed to be, and your family doesn't do it this way.'" Mintz said.8

References

  1. "Take Action: CLOSURE OF TEEN CENTERS IN HANDS OF GOVERNOR & DHR BOARD," G-CAPP Action Alert, Accessed online on September 24, 2004.
  2. Ibid.
  3. C. Schneider, "Centers that help teens say no to sex may have to close," Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 21, 2004.
  4. Ibid.
  5. "Teen Centers to Remain Funded," G-CAPP Policy and Advocacy News, September 23, 2004.
  6. See the full federal definition.
  7. "Georgia Teen Centers Must Spend More Time Discussing Abstinence to Receive Funding, Human Resources Board Says," Kaiser Daily Updates, Accessed online on September 24, 2004.
  8. A. Peters, "Sex Education Policies for Teen Centers Changed," Macon Telegraph, September 23, 2004.

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