LAURINBURG — When the bell rings at Sycamore Lane Middle School, Cierra Malloy returns home to face the most difficult lesson of her life.
The 13-year-old is learning how to be a mother.
“When I found out I was pregnant, I was crying because I knew I wouldn’t know what to do,” Cierra said. “I was scared. I was confused.”
Cierra was in seventh grade when she became pregnant with her daughter Shaniya, who is now 5 months old. She continued her studies and near the end of her pregnancy was assigned to a program called Homebound, where she was allowed to complete assignments brought to her home by a teacher.
“I just felt different when I was pregnant,” said Cierra. “Some people were saying stuff about me. My friends were actually happy and saying they wanted to spoil her.”
Cierra’s father, Charles Malloy, said that his daughter’s pregnancy was a “total shock,” though her sexual activity was not. Of Cierra’s older sisters, two had their first children at the age of 18.
“I knew she had little friends, but she really wasn’t out there out there,” Malloy said. “She was still nervous just to have that friend. Once I found out the intimacy of it, that got to me and then I said it’s a part of life. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes.”
Cierra returned to school full-time this semester, and hopes to enroll in Scotland Early College High School next year. Shaniya’s father, a 16-year-old high school student, is rarely in the picture, though his family provides some help.
“He was but now I can’t deal with him,” Cierra said. “His mama, she’ll still do stuff for her and I take her help and I know it’s for him because he ain’t going to ever do nothing… . Boys talk but as soon as you have that baby you’re getting no help.”
Elizabeth Finley, a spokesperson for the Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention Campaign of North Carolina, said that Cierra’s future may be brighter than that of an older teen parent, who though legally an adult still lacks education and steady employment.
“If you’re a parent and your 15-year-old daughter gets pregnant, the impulse is to rally around her to help her finish her education, find her path in life, and also help the baby,” she said. “If an 18-year-old or a 19-year-old gets pregnant the response seems to be that you’re an adult and you can deal with it.”
Of Scotland County’s 110 pregnancies to 15-19 year old women in 2011, the latest year for which data is available, 73 were to 18-and 19-year-olds.
Of those, 26 in the 15-17-year-old group and 67 of those aged 18 or 19 gave birth.
North Carolina’s teen pregnancy rate has steadily decreased over the last decade — from 76.1 pregnancies per 1,000 15-19 year old girls in 2000 to 43.8 pregnancies in 2011. But Scotland remains near the top of the rankings with teen pregnancies at nearly double the statewide average, even though that number has decreased from 104.7 in 2000 to 82.5 in 2011.
According to research by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, $392 million in public cost is associated with teen pregnancy in North Carolina annually, including Medicaid-funded births and an increased probability of repeated years of school and incarceration at some point in life.
In Scotland County, it is estimated that $2.3 million per year in federal, state, and local monies are spent, directly and indirectly, because of teen pregnancy.
Though most teenaged mothers are slightly older than high school age, Eckerd Youth Alternatives’ Scotland County adolescent parenting program has had girls as young as 12 to enroll. The program serves teen parents until their high school graduation, though girls who become pregnant a second time are no longer eligible, providing weekly group sessions focusing on prenatal care and child development as well as self-esteem building and secondary education opportunities.
“The teenage mothers’ dropout rate is really bad, so we want to help them stay in school and also get into some kind of secondary education, be self-sufficient, and have an independent living,” said Melinda McKoy, who operates Eckerd’s adolescent parenting program out of Shaw Academy.
Girls currently enrolled in the program include students from Shaw Academy, Scotland High School, and Sycamore Lane Middle School. Supervisor Erin McQueen said that the program is also open to teen fathers, but the responsibility for children rarely falls to them.
“We’re serving first-time pregnant and parenting teens — it can be the mothers or the fathers as long as they meet the requirements,” McQueen said. “We’ve had a few of the dads that would come to our group sessions, but they don’t want to be further involved with he program.”
Cierra, who is enrolled in the Eckerd program, said that she has learned basic parenting skills through the classes, including how to cope with a crying baby and how to nurture the development of her daughter’s basic reflexes. Working on relationship skills, she said, has also proved useful.
“I learned after I had that baby that you can’t be in a lot of stuff; it will mess your life up,” said Cierra. “I learned how to cut a lot of people off and not hang with certain people. That’s what I told my daddy, I said that drama at Scotland High School is not for me. I’ve got a child.”
McKoy, a Wagram native, was drawn to her job by personal experience — as a teenager, she also became a single mother. After attending college, she returned to Scotland County to help place the lives of other teen mothers on an upward trajectory.
“I really want them to be successful because when you think about it, they just have no motivation of doing better — I guess because of their home environment,” said McKoy. “When they come to me I try to make them feel loved and make them feel that somebody really cares.”
McKoy added that many of the young parents she sees are continuing a family cycle.
“A lot of children repeat what their mothers do. I’m finding now when I talk to these girls that their mother was also a teenage mother,” she said. “Even though I have a daughter, I don’t want her to make the same mistake that I did so even though I’m single and raising my daughter on my own, and it’s not easy, I put it into her mind not to do what I’ve done, to do better. I went to college while taking care of a child — I want much greater for her.”
Finley said that the primary contributors to North Carolina’s decrease in teen pregnancy are contraceptive use and delayed sexual activity among teenagers, which have been factors in both rural and urban environments. But low-income teens in rural areas, she said, lack exposure to contraceptive education while also having more opportunities to become sexually active.
“You have kids in areas like Durham whose parents ferry them to one after school activity to another so kids in general seem to have one thing after another after school and there’s no time to end up in someone’s bedroom after school hours,” Finley said. “What we see in rural counties is that there tend to be fewer options for younger people so there are less activities taking up their time.”
McKoy added that sexual education in schools focusing on abstinence, coupled with a lack of information available elsewhere, may be part of the cause of Scotland’s high rate of teen pregnancy.
“You find in school that they are not teaching about contraceptives and parents are not talking to their children,” she said.
The Scotland County Schools’ Healthful Living curriculum begins in fourth-and fifth-grade classes with several sessions each school year designed to “reinforce teaching by the parent.” In gender-specific classes, elementary school students are introduced to the basics of the male and female reproductive systems and the physical and emotional changes that occur during puberty.
The school system is due to receive a portion of an $800,000 federal Title V Abstinence Education grant, a feature of the Affordable Care Act. Earlier this month, the state board of education approved a disbursal of those monies to 19 school systems, including Scotland County Schools.
The grant money will focus on students in grades 4 through 6 who are at increased risk for bearing children out of wedlock. State officials could not be reached for comment regarding Scotland County’s portion of the grant or further limitations on the grant’s use.
Though she has the support of her father and her school as she learns “the easy way” to become a mother, Cierra recognizes that in some ways her childhood is over.
“I guess it’s just made me grow up a whole bunch,” she said. “I changed; people even tell me I’ve changed a lot.”
“I didn’t want her to do nothing this early, but things happen,” said Malloy. “When she walks up to me and says ‘Daddy, I got it,’ I’m her backbone until then.”