Oklahoma’s teen birth rate fell from No. 2 to third in the nation in 2017, and Tulsa County is leading the way thanks in part to the efforts of a coalition fighting the problem from multiple angles.
The Tulsa County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition and its partners helped the county have a 19 percent drop in 2017, nearly double the statewide decrease of 11 percent and well above a national 7 percent decrease, according to a state report. Only Mississippi and Arkansas had higher teen birth rates in 2017, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Amber McConnell, executive director of the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said although the drop is impressive, Oklahoma remains well behind the rest of the nation.
“Even though we have made progress, we are still ranked 48th out of 50 states for teen birth rates,” McConnell said. “We have improved from the year before; however, there is still a lot to do.
“We know the teen birth rate does affect our economy. It affects the future of those teen parents. ... We just want to give all youth the chance to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves and the resources to do so.”
The coalition — including partners like Tulsa Public Schools, medical professionals and faith-based programs — approaches the issue of teen pregnancy from more than purely contraception, McConnell said. Through programs like the Youth Leadership Council, McConnell said, the coalition tries to educate on consent, self-esteem and everything in between.
However, access to health care and contraception remain a significant barrier for many in Tulsa. It’s where the Take Control Initiative comes into play, a group dedicated to empowering women across all walks of life to access long-term solutions for birth control and sexual health care.
Laura Bellis, executive director at TCI, said the organization acts as a bridge between those who can’t get reproductive care and the health centers able to provide it. They specifically work with promoting the most effective long-term options for contraception like IUDs, Bellis said.
“So if someone is uninsured or under-insured, we help fill in that gap since 20 percent of Tulsans don’t have health insurance,” Bellis said. “These methods up front can be up to $1,200 out of pocket if you don’t have insurance.
“One of our big things is working to bring down that cost barrier, and then we also work with the health centers to make sure people are trained to provide these methods and are out in the community to make sure people know all of their options and have access to them.”
Access to teen-friendly clinics, reproductive care and evidence-based sex education are important aspects of the ongoing problem, but McConnell said as much or more of preventing teen pregnancy involves teens’ view of themselves.
“There are all sorts of things that impact a young person’s decisions before that happens,” McConnell said. “We talk about goal setting, self-esteem, happy relationships and abusive relationships. ... If we can teach youth to respect themselves and make their own decisions, we know we can help impact the teen birth rate.”
Within the overall teen birth rate are two categories: teens between 15-17 and those aged 18-19. Although Tulsa County’s birth rate for the younger group fell 12 percent, the rate among older teens fell 22 percent, almost four times the national drop of 6 percent.
Gabe Lowe, director of youth development at Youth Services of Tulsa, said the older group presents a unique challenge. Through a developing partnership with Tulsa Community College and intervention programs at places like Job Corps and the Tulsa Housing Authority, Lowe said YST works to reach those who missed previous education.
“It’s kind of tailored to groups that aren’t in a traditional school,” Lowe said. “The reason it’s so important is some of the young people we’re reaching, they haven’t had a chance to receive education like this before. When we do the class in our street outreach program, it might be the first time they’ve received evidence-based sex education, and they might be 20 to 22 years old.”
Apart from more concentrated efforts toward that older group, there’s belief the general downward trend is the result of several years’ work paying off.
Amy Brice with the Tulsa Health Department works with the Personal Responsibility Education Program. She and four teen pregnancy prevention specialists handle PREP, a federal grant issued to the Oklahoma State Department of Health and passed on to municipal health departments.
Brice said though she believes the overall decline is the product of many groups working together, she said it’s also past efforts coming to fruition, something she said is more than fulfilling.
“When you look at when (Tulsa Health Department) began teaching evidence-based intervention in schools and other groups were doing work in the community, those 18-to-19-year-olds are the products of having received intervention a little bit younger,” Brice said. “That education and increased access to effective, long-acting birth control, that combination is why we’re seeing the number go down in that age group.
“It feels like you won the lottery. There’s a piece of you that says we’re working day in and day out and you feel like you’re making a difference. But to see the numbers to support that, that’s really fulfilling.”