Births to teenagers in Hennepin County, the state's most urban and populous, fell in 2011 for the fifth year in a row, a decline that mirrors national trends, the county said Friday.
The number of females aged 15 to 19 who gave birth in 2011 — the most recent year for which data are available — dropped to 692, down from 1,170 in 2007, the county said, citing an analysis of birth certificates. The birthrate per 1,000 teenagers also dropped over the same span — from 32 in 2007 to 19.4 in 2011.
While the overall trend is down, pregnancy rates for black and Hispanic teens, as well as those in foster care or the correctional system, do not show as dramatic a decline as those for white teens, officials said. And there are sharp geographical differences across metro-area cities.
Still, the news was largely positive, said those who work with teenagers.
"People are catching on to the fact that it's not just knowledge, and not just about the young person," said Rita Molestina, a Planned Parenthood social worker who works with Richfield High and Middle School students as part of the Hennepin County Better Together program. "Preventing adolescent pregnancy isn't just about knowing how to use a condom."
Molestina, who speaks Spanish, works predominantly in Richfield's Latino community. She teaches volunteer students to be peer counselors, making them leaders who reach out to other students to talk about not just anatomy and sex, but goals and dreams.
Hennepin County is midway through a five-year, $16.4 million federal pregnancy prevention grant that runs through Aug. 31, 2015. Programs it has sponsored include comprehensive sexuality education, specialized health care, youth leadership and family relationship building.
For example, one program allows teens to have extended private conversations with health care professionals. Others zero in on Richfield and Brooklyn Center, the two suburbs with the highest concentrations of teen pregnancies.
County Board Chairman Mike Opat said he views teen pregnancy prevention as crucial to maintaining the county's strong social safety net.
"This is the number one social services, human services issue for us," he said. "It makes some people nervous to get into teen sexuality issues, but I've just felt like the costs are too high not to."
Economic and human costs
Nationally, teen pregnancies are dropping, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the national birthrate per 1,000 young women was 31.3 in 2011, a record low and a drop of 8 percent from the previous year.
The stakes in preventing teen pregnancy are high. Teen mothers are more likely than nonparents to drop out of school, live in poverty, and rely on public assistance, studies show. More than half of all human services spending in Minnesota goes to families that began with a teen parent, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and multiples of that in lost potential for young people. Children born to teen mothers are at higher risk for infant death, childhood health problems, cognitive and emotional delays, school struggles and a cycle of teen parenthood multigenerational poverty.
Katherine Meerse, manager of Better Together Hennepin, the umbrella organization for county programs, called the most recent drop "dramatic" and credited evidence-based prevention programs. "We have a lot more research in the past 20 years of what works and what doesn't work," she said.
Meerse said surveys of Minnesota teens show increased sexual activity among them. But birth and abortion numbers are both down, indicating that pregnancy prevention programs are working, she said.
Within Hennepin County's teen population, some subsets have higher pregnancy rates, including black and Hispanic teens, Meerse said.
Precise teen birth numbers and rates by race and ethnicity are not yet available, she said, because of changes to birth certificates that make historical comparisons harder. Overall, trends for black and Hispanic teenagers show birthrates declining, "but they continue to be significantly higher than the rates among white women ages 15 to 19," she said.
The numbers also show geographic differences. Brooklyn Center's teen births went up slightly in 2011, by four. But that's in the context of a 44 percent decline since 2007. Richfield saw a nearly 63 percent decrease over the same period, and teen births in Minneapolis were down more than 40 percent.
"We're not going to be satisfied until we show progress that outpaces everyone else," Opat said.