California Male Anti-Pregnancy Program Largest and Most Comprehensive

Martha Shirk
September 1, 1997

California's leading the movement to focus pregnancy prevention efforts at male teens. From 1996 through 1998. California expects to put more khan $8 million into-pregnancy prevention programs aimed at adolescent males.

The Male Involvement Program (MIP), the largest and most comprehensive effort in any state, funds 23 separate projects — such as the program in Long Beach serving mainly Cambodian immigrant youth, San Jose's program for primarily Hispanic youth and one in Pomona aimed at a mixture of African-American and Hispanic youth. The program's slogans range from "Be Proud! Be Responsible! Be a Man!" to "Get a Life before You Have a Kid."

"When I was back in Washington. D.C. last fall and told people about our program, they were dumbfounded that we were putting $8.5 million into a program just for males." said Jane Boggess. Chief of California's Office of Family Planning. “That isn't happening around the country.”

California has good reason to be worried about its teen pregnancy rate. The state has one of the highest in the country. Every year, almost 70,000 California teens give births — that's one every eight minutes. And state officials estimate that 44 percent of the children's fathers are teens themselves.

Separate from MIP, but with a common goal, is the three-year-old Partnership for Responsible Parenting, including a $29 million public awareness campaign and $60 million in community challenge grants. "Male responsibility" is one of the project's five themes.

In addition, the California Youth Authority runs a "Young Men as Fathers" program in each of its facilities.

'So Many Men'

'This is the first time we've ever had so many men at one of our meetings," said a veteran public health nurse as she surveyed a crowd of about 300, about a third of them men. "We could have a dance!"

The people running the MIP projects are primarily long-time youth workers and community organizers, who bring a decidedly different approach to teen pregnancy prevention than the family planning specialists who have traditionally dominated the field.

"Many of us are new to the business of pregnancy prevention," said Hector Sanchez-Flores of Los Compadres: The Young Men's Project, which is run by Klein Bottle Youth Programs in Santa Maria. "Our hearts are in the community. Pregnancy prevention is just one of our intents."

Richard Travieso, a health educator with Southern California Youth and Family Center in Inglewood, said even though the male involvement programs target pregnancy, they also concentrate on other problems.

'There are a lot of other things these kids are worrying about, like not having electricity at home, or their moms using crack, or their dads not being there. We give the teens some hope, and that's what's real exciting." MIP wasn't an easy sell in California's legislature.

"I was struck by questions from the lawmakers that showed a complete absence of understanding about male involvement," Boggess said of the budget meeting. She urged the local project directors to invite legislators to project sites so they could see the need for the projects.

"It's important for lawmakers to know what these programs are so they can make educated, rational policy decisions," she said. "We have to defend our budgets every year."

Workers Initially Skittish

In Tulare County, a culturally diverse agricultural area in northern California, the MIP works with males referred by juvenile hall. The local boot camp and the drug court, as well as those referred by the 11 youth centers scattered around the county. Local schools made it clear they weren't interested in having their facilities used if there was to be any talk about sex, said Robyn Flores, program director. In the end, she concluded schools weren't a good place to offer the program anyway, because so many youths have had negative experiences at school.

"Our community youth centers are safe places," Flores said. "(Kids) want to be there. Most of them already have relationships with the staff there."

Flores said the youth workers had trouble at first with the pregnancy prevention message "because they have not typically dealt with family life and sex education materials." The mental health counselors who were working with youth in juvenile facilities also were skittish. She said the best advice she could offer others planning to work with young men on pregnancy prevention is to find staff with the right attitude.

"The staff we have really believe these kids are at-promise, not at risk," she said. "We need to treat the youth we work with as our own children."

Recreation is a major part of the pro-gram's approach.

"We take kids on hiking trips and to basketball tournaments and to special events like a Cinco de Mayo Festival." FIores said. 'They really like the involvement. On a three-day hiking trip, they tend to have more meaningful discussions about sexual activity than they have during a 12-week curriculum."

Peer Educators Break Ice

For a year before state funding was available, the Family Services Agency in San Francisco operated a pregnancy prevention program for males in local high schools.

"We'd go to schools at lunch time and bring pizza," said Bryan Patton, program director. "We decided we'd feed them some information, too. There weren't really many opportunities in the schools or in the community for guys to talk about male issues. There are many such opportunities for teen girls. We thought the guys needed the same services."

The recent stale funding enabled the program to expand into group homes and the juvenile justice system.

Because Patton kept running into male teens who had already fathered a child, he started a fathers' support group.

"They needed assistance in how to go out and get a job so they
could be a good parent," he said. "And we wanted to educate them about preventing a second pregnancy, too. The curriculum is based not only on what I want to give them, but what they want to know."

Among the obstacles Patton has encountered is young people's reluctance to talk about sexuality. "One of the biggest (challenges) was to get the guys to open up in front of other young men," he said.

Although Patton's program is aimed at preventing teen pregnancies, he sees his mission as much broader.

"We've got to work on the young men understanding-humanity. Responsibility, education and employment," he said. "As we address these issues as a whole, we'll start finding that the individual problems disappear."

'Okay To Love'

The California Youth Authority is a pioneer in the movement to encourage youth to take fatherhood more seriously. Its programs aim to make those who are already fathers, better fathers — and to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the future. Walter Jones, lead superintendent in the authority's Office of Victims and Prevention Services, established the program four years ago in four institutions after noticing that almost a quarter of the 16,000 youths in his agency's custody were already fathers, some with as many as five children.

"All of the young men I've dealt with over the years had intense desire to be good dads," Jones said. 'There are more similarities between the young men who are locked up and those in the community than differences. What we have to do is build on those similarities."

One part of the authority's curriculum teaches the young adults how to put on skits or puppet shows that will engage their children.

"This is scary, because once the word passes around the prison that a guy has put on a puppet show, he can face a lot of razzing," Jones said. The youths also practice holding life-like dolls.

"One of the messages I take with me to the youths in my programs is that it's okay to love your children," Jones said. I tell them, 'Don't let anyone give you any flak for showing that.'"

To the surprise of prison officials, about half of the young men who sign up for the program aren't fathers.

"They tell us that they'd like to be some day, and they want to be good ones."

Shirk, Martha. "California Male Anti-Pregnancy Program Largest and Most Comprehensive." Youth Today, Sept/Oct 1997, p. 44.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.