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Teen Pregnancy: Who Is Accountable?

Teen Pregnancy: Who Is Accountable?

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

Many people were shocked by the recent revelation that 28 boys, all under the age of 16 – the youngest being 12 years old – had fathered children and were being charged child support.

While many might think it fair to force these boys to contribute to the financial support of their child, the situation does raise a number of important issues.

The first question is who should be responsible for financial support when a young girl becomes pregnant and decides to keep her baby – should it be the girl, her family, the boy, his family, or the taxpayer?
In the past, most young girls who became pregnant adopted their babies out – in some cases, to their wider family. Just 30 years ago, more than 3,000 babies were offered up for adoption. Today that number has dropped to only a few hundred.

Before the advent of the Domestic Purposes Benefit, in the Seventies, working women pregnant out of wedlock were supported by the state during their last stages of pregnancy and first three months after the baby’s birth – or six months if she was breastfeeding. If she wasn’t working, her family supported her. As a result, the number of such births remained low for decades.

However, the liberalisation of divorce, medical advancements increasing women’s control over their fertility, and the introduction of the DPB meant that, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the trend began to change.

The DPB was originally designed to provide an income for women, with children, to enable them to leave violent relationships. It then became widely available to women who chose to separate or to have a baby on their own – the only requirements were that she didn’t work, didn’t marry and didn’t allow the father contact with his child for more than 40 percent of the time. As a result, New Zealand now leads the OECD in single parent families, fatherlessness and teenage pregnancy.

The reason so many people are seriously concerned about teenage pregnancy is that, in public policy, you get what you pay for. The DPB has a lot to offer a teenage girl without a qualification: a secure income that pays more than a job, more money for each additional child and, if she wants to go on to university, free education.
Most teenage girls who receive the DPB stay on it for years. Now, as a result of the Government’s recent changes – supported by United Future – allowing mothers to receive the benefit until her youngest child is 18, a teenage mother could well be on that benefit for life.

Parenting is arguably life’s most important challenge. Government research shows children can be seriously disadvantaged if their parent/s take on that responsibility without emotional and financial stability. Children from unstable, benefit-led families all too often end up in state care, contributing to the seven percent annual growth in the number of children taken from their families by the Department of Child, Youth and Family – up from 2,500 in 1996 to 4,500 last year.

I believe that our present system, which encourages vulnerable young girls – who are often from unstable fatherless families, and are little more than children themselves – to have and keep their babies, is doing the baby, the girl, and society a huge disservice; and that is not to mention the enormous cost to the taxpayer.

I would like to see such pregnant girls counselled more strongly about the choice of adopting the baby out – especially since open adoption, which is inclusive of birth parents, is now very common.

In some countries the problem has been tackled by returning the responsibility for teenage mothers back to parents. The girl’s parents are required to support her, helped by the father of the child, and his parents if he is still dependent. If the girl’s family is unable or unwilling to support her, then state care is provided in a special hostel where she receives adult supervision and assistance.

The young mother must also complete her schooling, since a mother’s lack of education is recognised as a key risk factor for children. Education is also a key to her doing well in the workforce, as she will be expected to become the breadwinner for her family.

Instead of the present system, which sees so many New Zealand babies raised in situations where they are at serious disadvantage and risk, we must discourage early parenting until our young people have finished their education and are in stable relationships. Further, we should look to emulate the approach above, ensuring that young people understand the need to take personal responsibility for their fertility, and that they appreciate the consequences of parenthood – including the significant financial liabilities.

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