JOANNA OTERO-CRUZ was 16 years old when she got pregnant with her daughter Raychal.
She still remembers the judgmental stares. No one had to say a word for her to know what they were thinking: Another baby with a baby. Another disgraceful example of youthful irresponsibility. Another drain on taxpayers.
What did it matter to them that Cruz, now the executive director of Concilio, the oldest Latino social-service organization in the city, was raising her daughter with the baby's father? Or that she was dropping her daughter at day care so she could finish high school and later college? They saw one thing: a statistic, part of a trend of teen moms that seemed to grow larger and larger each year, with no end in sight.
And they were right, then.
Teen births began declining in 1991, but that decline really gained momentum starting in 2007 to reach a historic low in 2012 of 29.4 births per 1,000 teenagers, falling almost 30 percent in the last five years.
Let's take a moment to celebrate the good news, which Philadelphia Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz attributed to several reasons, including better contraception. But only take a moment, because there's still a lot that threatens these gains.
For one, Republican lawmakers have done their best to cut funding to several family-planning programs, including Planned Parenthood, both at the national and state level.
And while numbers are down across all racial and ethnic groups, the rates remain highest among Latinas, who are also more likely to have another child before they turn 20. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 births to Latinas ages 15 to 19 is not their first child. In Philadelphia in 2010, there were 89.8 births per 1,000 Hispanic teens.
There are a lot of reasons for the persistently high rates of teen births among Latinas. Among them: poverty, lack of insurance and immigration status. But poverty remains the biggest factor, Schwarz said. Poor women are less likely to have access to health care, he said. It's that simple, and inexcusable - especially when teen pregnancy affects so many aspects of our society, from education to violence.
At Concilio, they have an abstinence-based program called PHAT! - Promoting Health Among Teens. This summer the young people who participated took to the streets to interview people about their views on teen pregnancy, and to pass on a message of their own. We should work to decrease teen pregnancy, but stigmatizing teen parents isn't the way.
Because the numbers don't bode well for these teens, and without some support, their futures only become more bleak. Only 40 percent of teenagers who have children before age 18 graduate from high school, compared with 75 percent of teens from similar social and economic backgrounds who have children later. But ironically, funding for PHAT! is under review.
In July, I wrote a column about women holding the key to a lot of the violence in the city by not becoming teen moms. It wasn't a popular opinion. But too bad. The truth hurts.
To be clear, I wasn't advocating abstinence; I was advocating teens not having children until they're emotionally and financially prepared to care for them. Until they can ensure, as much as any of us can, that they aren't giving birth to another generation saddled with all that comes from being brought into the world when your parents are just children themselves.
But as a society so quick to judge and stigmatize these young women, we have a part to play as well. And yes, I said young women because most of the time we don't even consider the men anymore. We expect them to be gone, so we don't expect anything of them. But that's a discussion for another day.
These young women hold the key. But we have a responsibility to not lock them out of the programs that have led to this historic decline.