MERCED — California's teen birth rate has reached its lowest level since 1991. Unfortunately, the central San Joaquin Valley still lags far behind the rest of the state.
Teen birth rates in the valley are dropping, but the region still remains near the top statewide for pregnancies among 15 to 19 year olds.
In 2011, the most recent year studied by the state, Fresno County's teen birth rate was 45.2 live births for every 1,000 teens. That was a decline from the rate of 51.3 the year before.
The rates in Madera, Tulare, and Merced also declined, but King's rate jumped from 55.3 in 2010 to 56.5 in 2011.
Such totals are far above the state average of 28, shows the study, released this week by the California Department of Public Health.
Teen births were highest in 1991, when the rate was 70.9.
The Department of Public Health listed 21 California counties that had birth rates significantly higher than the three-year average for the state. From 2009 to 2011, valley counties commanded positions in the top 10 of the list, with Tulare posting the highest three-year birth-rate average at 60.2 in 1,000. Kings was second on the list at 59.3. Madera and Fresno counties held positions six and seven at 54.6 and 49.7, respectively. Merced County stood at the 10th position with a rate of 44.9.
It is unclear as to why the birth-rate has dropped so steadily in past years, but the report points to programs aimed at curbing teen pregnancy and stopping teen mothers from having a second pregnancy.
"The California Department of Public Health believes that California's programs and policies are contributing to the decline," Corey Egel, a representative from the CDPH's Office of Public Affairs.
Tulare County utilizes the state's PREP (Personal Responsibility Education Program), which is focused on decreasing teen pregnancies and increasing community support around the topic of teenage pregnancy. According to Sharon Minnick, an epidemiologist with the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, birth rates among all age groups under 30 declined, "so we cannot completely attribute the drop in teen birth rates to the above mentioned programs (PREP)."
Minnick also noted that "our teen birth rates have been falling steadily for the past decade."
Fresno County's Adolescent Family Life Program is another service designed to help pregnant teens and families with a focus on preventing repeat teen pregnancies. Christy Gordon, program manager for the AFLP said, "The support and education teens are given because of our program hopefully attributed (to the lowered birth rate). Greater access to contraception always plays a factor, too."
The lower birth rate might be an inflated statistic, though. Because of state budget cuts starting in early 2011, Cal-Learn, a program that aided pregnant teens and teenage mothers, was defunded, reducing the number of case workers available to detail and document teen pregnancies. Kayla Wilson, Teen Parent Coordinator at the Fresno County Office of Education, said, "It's (teen birth rate) still high, despite what the numbers might say. Two years ago they wiped out Cal-Learn and replaced it with a program a fraction of the size."
According to Wilson, the teenage birth rate had not dropped, there are simply fewer social workers to record births accurately. She added, "In reality, the rate is stable, not spiking."