The Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands’ latest data report raised the eyebrows of activists, advocates and nonprofits in the territory because of one statistic: teenage pregnancy rates are lower than they’ve been in 15 years.
This fact hasn’t been lost on Dee Baecher-Brown, president of CFVI. Her foundation, which began in 1990, has dedicated years to pushing programs like the Fatherhood Collaborative and the Virtues Project, which aim to increase awareness of responsible fatherhood and caring communities. Brown said these programs and their data reports facilitate a forum where their "community partners can collectively talk about teen pregnancy and dedicate themselves to help in that area."
"I wouldn’t claim credit, but I like to say we’re part of the solution," Brown said.
With a new data report on the horizon, and a previous report that says teenage pregnancy rates are lower than they’ve been in more than a decade, local activists and nonprofit advocacy groups are pointing to early childhood education and programs for contributing to the decrease.
They caution their work is not finished, though, particularly when it comes to child poverty and single-parent households.
Thirty percent of Virgin Islands children live in poverty. Single-mother families living in poverty jumped from 37 percent in 2009 to nearly 48 percent in 2010, according to statistics released by CFVI.
The CFVI’s 2012 Kids Count Data Book is based on the most recent census data from 2010. The teen birth rate for girls aged 15 to 19 in the Virgin Islands was 43.4 births per thousand, which is down from 51.3 in 2009, according to the report. Similar improvements trended throughout the nation, according to the data report.
There were 1,657 total live births and 164 were born to teen mothers in 2010. Ninety-one teen mothers gave birth on St. Croix, while 73 gave birth on St. Thomas and St. John. The report was released in June.
Mary Gleason, a current member and former president of the St. Thomas Rotary Club, said she has been involved with a program called "Baby Think It Over" since 1995. Gleeson said she immediately thought about the program as soon as she was informed about the drop in teen birth rates.
The "Baby Think It Over" program matches students with a computerized doll about the size and weight of a 3-month-old baby. Each baby cries in five distinctive voices and the students are charged with responding accordingly. If anything happens to the expensive dolls, the students are held responsible, Gleason said.
As many as 50 Students from Charlotte Amalie High School, Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School participated in the program in 2011 and more students are participating every year. The Rotary Club funds and sponsors the program.
"Talk to the children. They know it’s working," Gleason said. "Once they have the experience, they know they want to delay pregnancy until they’re emotionally and financially able."
Gleason sees improvement but still sympathizes with the plight of many families she’s encountered over the years.
"It’s so upsetting to me. Single parent households are one of the biggest problems (in the territory). My feeling is it’s where our crime problem comes from," Gleason said. "The single parent is probably working two jobs. There’s no strong male presence in the house. These kids get two strikes before they even start."
Kim Holdsworth, co-director of Kids Count, said her job is not necessarily to interpret the data but to present it to "stakeholders" such as residents, business leaders, religious leaders and government officials. But she did say the fact that the poverty rate is highest among children 5-years-old and younger is troubling.
"Poverty underlines and informs all trends, especially negative trends," Holdsworth said. "Declining health, economic stability, unstable families, unstable housing, failing attendance. We tag a lot of negative trends to high poverty figures."
Holdsworth said CFVI has "been receiving census data in incremental and fragmented pieces." CFVI will release two reports in 2014.
One is a detailed report filled with comparative analysis of issues and statistics from the last 20 years. This data report will focus on the territory’s children and their families and will be released in February, Brown said.
2014 Kids Count will be released later in the year, Holdsworth said.
Gleason knows she has more work to do. But one doesn’t always measure success in fluctuating trends.
"When (the Rotarians) got into this, we said if we save one young woman and one child, we’re gonna feel like we’ve accomplished something," Gleason said, and that “we’ve saved more that."