Out here in the dry mountains, amid the yucca and Gila monsters, dusty towns lie low on the desert floor, clinging to life.
The tourists up in Santa Fe, whipping out charge cards to buy turquoise jewelry and Southwestern artwork, have no reason to visit here. Alamogordo. Clovis. Socorro. They could not guess that New Mexico has chosen these isolated settlements for an experiment in human redemption.For about five years, New Mexico has been tackling one of the most intractable problems in America: teen pregnancy. It has set up homes where young women can live with their babies and learn how to be mothers, where they are safe from boyfriends or parents or gangs.
Lives have been changed, one at a time. Of the 69 young women in these homes last year, not one became pregnant again. That is nothing short of a miracle in the frustrating world of social service. Then again, it's just one year.
"None of us know what these programs are going to do. You have to learn as you go," said Lyn Strauss, a state worker overseeing the homes.
While New Mexico's second-chance homes offer a glimpse of what works, they also illustrate why it is so difficult for officials in Washington to do anything about the half-million teenagers who give birth each year.
President Clinton has issued calls for a national campaign against teen pregnancy. Congress insisted in its new welfare bill that teen mothers live at home or with a responsible adult.
New Mexico's focus has been intensely local; the state offers little but guidance to communities that want the program.
In Albuquerque, the home for teenage mothers was put together by 26 groups. Success depends on community interest and even the personalities of the local leaders, said Barbara Otto, director of New Mexico's Teen Parent Services.
Each second-chance home is a little different, but the premise is the same. Every young mother has an adult in her face, insisting that she go back to school and learn a skill, helping her arrange day care, nagging her not to get pregnant again.
The young women live at the homes for a year or two, until they are ready to face the world.
As Otto put it, "I want to make them sturdy little units with their babies."
At the United Futures Group Home in Alamogordo, the big news is that they finally scraped up enough money to buy a set of matching flatware.
This is a sparkling clean house, furnished in "Early Goodwill," with the harvest golds and avocado greens of a bygone era. They have been promised a hand-me-down computer, another gift from people in this town of 30,000.
Free cable TV was donated, restaurants have sent steaks and pizza for parties. Kmart offered free paint, and volunteers freshened up the place.
Three young mothers, their three children and three senior women live here. New Mexico is one of the first to experiment with multigenerational homes. Ideally, the young and older women will bond, and grandmothers will dote on the babies.
"The older residents have so much to give," said Gerry Recker, newly hired at the home. "The younger ones can learn from them. Some of the young moms don't know how to cook or anything."
But it turns out the generations don't always mix happily. In Alamogordo, their bedrooms are at opposite ends of a 6,000-square-foot house. They avoid each other or squabble in the big, central kitchen.
The little kids, from infants to preschoolers, can drive the older women crazy.
"It's the screaming," said Corrine Neilson, 66. "It's not the crying, it's the screaming."
She said the young mothers think they know everything and won't take advice.
The mothers have their own problems, and it may be months before workers hear the full story. Many have been abused. One girl didn't know whether it was her father or her grandfather who had impregnated her.
Sometimes the memories come out in nightmares. Otto said most of the homes provide night staff because that's when the young women may need counseling.
They may also need protection. In Alamogordo, a boyfriend showed up and started making trouble. The senior women ganged up and drove him out.
Community support is sometimes hard won, program manager Richard Brandner said. Some people disapprove of the young mothers - sexually active, having babies out of wedlock, going on welfare.
"I tell them we all make mistakes. We can't change it once it's happened. What we can do is prevent it from happening again," he said.
Brandner, who spent 17 years with the Atomic Energy Commission, now spends much of his time rounding up support for the home. He relies on local people like Rosemary Ogden, who has made the home a project for her garden club and church, bringing food, clothes, quilts and toys for the children.
"The Christmas party last year," she said, "it brought tears to your eyes, they were so happy."
Sarah Grisham is a family court judge in Alamogordo. She watches the parade of troubled families who come through her courtroom - abused children, deadbeat dads, drug-addicted moms - and she has a fantasy: put birth control into the water systems of public schools.
Teenage pregnancy is the strong thread running through many of the wrecked lives Grisham sees.
"We should make it clear from the time they're very young that morals count for something and that it is immoral to have a child you're not capable of raising," Grisham said. "I know that sounds very judgmental and very '40s, but I don't think we can afford to have children raising children."
Teenage pregnancy costs taxpayers - roughly $7 billion last year - because it dooms most young mothers and their children to a life of poverty. Half of all welfare mothers today were teens when they gave birth to their first child.
Most teen mothers dropped out of school before they became pregnant, so it's hard for them to find jobs. Drugs, crime, depression and domestic violence are often part of their lives.
Their children will suffer, too. Studies show that the children of teenage mothers have more health and behavior problems. They are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and join gangs.
The daughters of teen mothers are more likely to become pregnant and the sons to become criminals - not all of them, of course. But the pattern is so alarmingly clear that Republicans and Democrats agree teen pregnancy might be a good place to try to break the cycle of dependency, to address a host of social ills.
In Albuquerque, nearly a dozen young mothers live in a block of public housing apartments near a Job Corps training center. They pay rent with their welfare checks and go to Job Corps every day to work on their graduate equivalency degrees or learn job skills. Day care is on-site. Counselors oversee their mothering in the apartments.
Kim Cage, an 18-year-old with long, honey-colored hair and enormous blue eyes, has a daughter who is already 2 1/2. In the past nine months, Kim has finished her GED and is taking courses to become a medical assistant.
She is not offended by someone telling her how to live, how to treat her child. "You can never know too much about being a good mom."
Most of these teenagers want to be good mothers, but they may have had no role models. Some had abusive parents. Some were kicked out of their homes. Some became pregnant in foster care.
"We've got a bunch of kids that are badly, badly damaged," said Otto.
Otto says dealing with young mothers the past five years has been a learning experience for her. She discovered a couple of the mothers making money on the side as prostitutes in their apartments. Another group of girls set up a shoplifting ring.
"It's things like that," she said, "that can cut your life span real short."
Some young mothers never make it. Occasionally, they are reported for abusing their children even while living in the residential homes, and the children are put up for adoption. A few decide on their own that adoption is best.
But most finish some kind of training and get jobs that at least will keep them off welfare. If nothing else, Otto said, they have learned how to deal with their children and are stable enough to go to work.
Fifteen years from now, maybe their children will stay in school and stay out of trouble. Maybe they won't repeat their mothers' mistakes.
"We're doing Band-Aid surgery. I don't think there's a lot we can do for the girls," said Otto. "We are aiming for the children."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)