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City Councilman John Conrad says it's time to jump-start Richmond's campaign against teen pregnancy. 

Babies Having Babies

Frustrated by the city's stubborn teen-pregnancy statistics, City Councilman John Conrad is pushing for a campaign to educate young women about the consequences of motherhood at an early age and to prosecute men who violate sex-with-minors laws.

Conrad says he's upset because the teen pregnancy rate is down statewide and nationally, but appears to be mostly flat in Richmond.

"We've made progress in virtually every area of the city except this one area," he says. "It's the cause of most of the problems we experience - poverty, illiteracy, crime, substance abuse."

According to state statistics, there were 863 teen pregnancies in Richmond in 1998, the latest year tabulated. There were 934 teen pregnancies here in 1997; 878 in 1996; and 778 in 1995.

Conrad's concerns are detailed in a proposed resolution and supporting documents presented at last week's City Council meeting but postponed for a vote to June 12. The resolution would direct City Manager Calvin Jamison "to develop and implement an aggressive education campaign" and to assist city police and prosecutors in "zealously prosecuting" male violators, something Conrad says isn't happening now.

"[T]here is significant evidence to indicate that violations of the carnal knowledge law … are not properly being reported, investigated and prosecuted by appropriate city officials," the resolution states.

Conrad did not detail specific incidents of failures to report, but says constituents and city employees have told him suspected violations are not being reported. His resolution would require city employees in social services and other departments to do so when they have "reason to suspect that a child under the age of 15 is a victim of statutory rape or a violation of Virginia's carnal knowledge law." Conrad proposes that employees who don't be fined or fired.

In support of his proposed resolution, Conrad cites studies that show single mothers are less likely to get good prenatal care, and more likely to engage in risky behavior during pregnancy. They are more likely to give birth prematurely, and their babies are at a higher risk for abuse, neglect and poverty; to have health, learning and behavioral problems; and to commit crime. Finally, female babies born to single mothers are more likely to become single mothers themselves.

"We do have a problem," says Yolanda Guthrie, a 10-year veteran social worker in the MCV Hospitals neonatal intensive care unit, and a supporter of Conrad's proposal. "I really want to look at this as a positive endeavor."

It can be hard being positive. Guthrie deals with most of the pregnant girls who seek aid at MCV: "I've heard everything from 'I love him' … to 'My mom told me to do it.'"

"The system pays you to have a child," Guthrie explains. "Even if it's only for two years." Welfare money isn't the only incentive; sometimes women pawn off their young daughters for sex with drug dealers to pay off debts, she says.

Even the fathers sometimes talk to Guthrie: "She was cute. She was easy. She was clean," they tell her. "It's heart-breaking. … A lot of them, because of the lifestyles that they live, they feel they're not going to live a long life and they want to leave a baby here."

Guthrie says the teen mothers and fathers are ignorant of the law and "I think people need to understand we mean business" about enforcing it.

"There's really not a typical case," Guthrie adds. There are young mothers who are aware of their condition and doing their best to have a healthy baby. And then there are those who show up in the ER at the last minute, saying, "I have a stomach ache."

One thing that is common, however, is the attitude of those involved: "Oh, no, they're not embarrassed," Guthrie says. "Usually the birth mother is in love with the guy. And sometimes [her mother] is happy she's got a grandchild."

Changing such attitudes, Conrad agrees, may be the hardest task of all. City Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin agrees.

"I think that the issue may be … a lifestyle choice that can't be reached by legislation," El-Amin says. "I support [Conrad's] overall concerns, but the question is, 'Can we get there from where he puts it?'"

It's been tried before. Conrad's proposal follows a similar city campaign begun in 1995, called the "Carnal Knowledge Campaign." Despite some "initial success," according to Conrad's resolution and supporting documents, "[b]y late 1999 the campaign was moribund."

Other City Council members discuss Conrad's proposal with guarded support.

"John has very correctly identified a very important problem," says Mayor Tim Kaine. But he's worried that aggressive enforcement could keep pregnant teens from seeking prenatal care if they fear the fathers will be prosecuted: "I think there's a public health-public safety balance we have to strike on this one."

While other council members also support Conrad's goal, they have other concerns as well. Vice Mayor Rudy McCollum Jr. wants to know how much the campaign would cost, and Delores McQuinn wants to know "what motivated him" to push for a renewed effort.

Conrad scoffs at the notion that his proposal is linked to his campaign for attorney general or to any desire other than to reduce the number of children born to underage mothers in Richmond: "I don't think there's anything more
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