The movie with the most buzz at this year's Sundance Film Festival was "Precious," an Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry-produced story of a young woman living in poverty. Precious is a survivor of incest and emotional and physical abuse who is unsupported by the adults around her. The movie is an unlikely hit because of its raw portrayal of tough, even taboo subjects, and because of the searing effect it has on those who see it.
The story of Precious is so unsettling that it would be easy to write her life off as just another product of Hollywood. Her experiences are seemingly unthinkable and it's hard to accept that her story could be real.
But it is. Even in Charleston.
In our state, a teen gets pregnant every 50 minutes. The teen pregnancy rate in South Carolina increased 8 percent from 2004 to 2006. Teen pregnancy cost state taxpayers at least $156 million in 2004. However, the costs are more than financial; the price is most severe for the children of these teen moms. They are more likely to live in poverty and become teen parents themselves. The boys are more likely to go to prison. Teen mothers tend to drop out of school and perpetuate the cycle of poverty for their children. Three-quarters of people living in poverty in the U.S. are women and children.
Our nation has more than double the rates of teen pregnancy and births than other industrialized countries. We keep doing research to try to figure out why. Teen pregnancy is highly correlated with histories of abuse. Though we don't like to talk about it, in the U.S. today, one in three girls is sexually abused. Our state has a poor history of caring for its most vulnerable members. There were almost 17,000 reported cases of child abuse or neglect last year. We rank 46th in the overall well-being of children (2008 Kids Count).
What's the good news? We ARE making progress. Teen birth rates in South Carolina decreased 28 percent between 1991 and 2004. There are fewer children living in poverty. And research is teaching us what works to combat teen pregnancy. One aspect seems simple: Talk to your kids about sex! I've worked with many pregnant teens who didn't know the facts. And have "the talk" earlier than you think you should -- the average age for first sexual intercourse in South Carolina is 13.7 years. That's middle school. So please talk (and listen) to young people -- girls and boys -- even if it makes you uncomfortable. Kids listen more than we believe to what concerned adults say. And don't only teach them the mechanics; talk to them about relationships, values and delaying sexual activity.
There's a great tool to help you educate youths about the realities of teen pregnancy: go online to www.atthemargin.org. Click on the YouTube link, and view multiple videos from teen moms themselves, telling their stories in their own voices. And ask your kids what they think.
Let's show our kids how much we value them by talking to them, honestly and openly. If they are old enough, go see "Precious" with them (opening Nov. 20 at the Terrace Theatre on James Island). It's a great way to start the discussion.
Lisa Belton is executive director of Florence Crittenton Programs of South Carolina, a program for pregnant and parenting young women. Anyone needing assistance with teen pregnancy can call 722-7526; call 211 for all needs within the Lowcountry.