Money for Teen Pregnancy Prevention on Chopping Block

Nearly $9 million in federal money is headed to seven nonprofit groups in Texas to help prevent teen pregnancies, but continued funding for the programs is in jeopardy.

WASHINGTON — Nearly $9 million in federal money is headed to seven nonprofit groups in Texas to help prevent teen pregnancies, but continued funding for the programs is on the chopping block.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last week announced $86 million in teen pregnancy prevention grants nationwide to nonprofits, school districts and universities in 31 states and the District of Columbia. That's for the first year of a five-year grant period, but the remaining four years are in jeopardy. 

Both the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees have proposed cutting funding from the evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. The Senate proposal would slash the funding by 80 percent, bringing the budget to $20 million a year. The House version would stop funding the program altogether. 

Republicans pushing for cuts to the pregnancy prevention program say they are trying to reduce wasteful spending and would rather spend money on abstinence education programs they say have a proven track record. 

But some of the Texas groups receiving the money say that gutting the program would prevent them from completing the work they begin. Since the program began in 2010, Texas organizations have received about $7.4 million a year, according to the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the new grants will spur additional preparations. 

“If this funding is cut that would be devastating to all those people who have just been brought into the positions, basically a year’s worth of effort to get something up and running will just come to an end,” said Gwen Daverth, CEO and president of the Texas Campaign.

The dispute over money on Capitol Hill comes at a time when teen pregnancies among 15-year-olds to 19-year-olds are down nationwide. But there’s still a lot more to be done about the problem, according Evelyn Kappeler, Health and Human Services' director of adolescent health.

Texas ranks fifth among all states and the District of Columbia in teen birth rates, according the Office of Adolescent HealthIn 2012, the average birth rate nationally was 29 per 1,000 teens ages 15-19; in the Lone Star State, teens gave birth at a rate of 44 per 1,000

Leslee Unruh, founder of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, is among those who believe the federal money is better spent on abstinence education.

"Sex ed has failed our children," she said. "The Sexual Revolution has come, went and lost. The sex ed industry needs to quit digging. The money is gone." 

The seven Texas programs receiving funds are the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Texas A&M University System Health Science Center, Project Vida Health Center El Paso, Engender Health Inc., the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, Community Action Corporation of South Texas, and Healthy Futures of Texas. 

These Texas organizations are expected to reach more than 20,000 young people at the end of the five-year grant period.

One of the beneficiaries, the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, is sharing the wealth by partnering with other organizations in the Dallas area.  

“There are so many teens and parents that we need to reach in North Texas and this will really allow us to do that,” said Terry Greenberg, head of the North Texas Alliance.

The alliance is getting $987,500 to hire half a dozen educators and create a program called Families Talking Together. The course will focus on parents and give them tools to improve their skills in talking with teens about sex education.

“Our grant is focusing directly on five different ZIP codes in Dallas. Each one of these ZIP codes has a [teen] birth rate that is at least triple and some quadruple the birth rate of the U.S.,” Greenberg said.

In San Antonio, Healthy Futures of Texas will receive $903,314 to implement and evaluate Big Decisions, a program that involves 10 sessions in schools focused on topics such as life and career goals, abstinence and “refusal” skills.

Healthy Futures President Dr. Janet Realini said her work is more than telling teens not to have sex. It's about instilling them with ambition, looking beyond the present, she said.

“The information and the skills that you would offer in programs about sexual health education is very important, but a small piece of the puzzle is really about helping the young people see their potential for the future and that they really can achieve these dreams,” Realini said.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is getting two grants for its work training and supporting organizations that implement Teen Pregnancy Prevention programs. And the program director is looking ahead to plant roots for long-lasting change even if funding is cut.

Dr. Kristen Plastino, director of UT TeenHealth at the Health Science Center, is already looking toward the end of the grant period. Plastino says she wants to ensure that the organizations that TeenHealth has been training can continue to run their programs.

“We’re building them up to be able to do that,” Plastino said.

In the town of Alice, Texas, the Community Action Corporation of South Texas plans to use its grant to help 3,800 students in rural areas with leadership development.

“The relationship that we have with the teen and the teen’s family doesn’t end when the teen leaves school that day and leaves our program; it’s a long-term relationship,” said Ann Awalt, executive director of Community Action.

On Capitol Hill, the next vote on the spending bill that includes the program cuts hasn’t been set yet. However, Congress is supposed to take action on all spending bills before Oct. 1, the start of the next budget year.

“Without the funding, there is nothing to replace it,” Daverth said.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.