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Ignorance reigns in discussion of teenage fatherhood

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How typical are they, these young men in the Centro de Familia Fatherhood Project? Do they have less money, more anger, less education than the typical teen dad? Do they spend more or less time with their children?

The answer is: We don't know. We don't know much about teen dads, in Utah or in the nation. Mainly we keep statistics on the mother and the baby.We don't even know for sure how many Utah boys become fathers every year. The National Center for Health Statistics has a hard time counting dads because half the unmarried mothers don't list the father, much less his age, on the birth certificate. The most recent national estimates show that for every 1,000 boys 15 to 19 years old, 23 became fathers in 1996.

We do know that about 5,000 Utah teens will become mothers this year. Some experts who work with teen mothers say a third of them have boyfriends in their twenties. Some say half do. So take a guess. Maybe 2,500 teen dads this year in Utah? And much of what we know about them will come from studies on the moms:

- Teen pregnancy is a major social problem in the United States. Pregnancy rates are down from 10 years ago, but the teen population is growing. A million girls become pregnant each year.

In Utah, 45 percent of female-headed households get alimony or child support. Nationally, only 33 percent do.

- Abortion rates are relatively low in Utah. Ten years ago, 24 percent of Utah teen pregnancies were terminated, compared to 36 percent nationally. The Utah rate has since dropped to 12 percent.

- Adoption is more popular in Utah. Nationally, 4 percent of unwed mothers place their babies for adoption. In Utah, it's 11 percent.

- Fathers are supposed to have first chance at custody if mom puts the baby up for adoption. But merely having his name on the birth certificate is not enough to guarantee an unmarried father his rights or responsibilities.

- If they want to sign a voluntary declaration of legal paternity, boys under 18 must have a parent co-sign. Last year, in Utah, 127 underage fathers signed such legal documents.

- Pregnancy rates for Utah teens are lower than the national average, 44 pregnancies per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19, as compared to 50 pregnancies per 1,000 white girls, nationally, every year.

- Teen marriage rates are dropping in Utah, with an accompanying increase in single teen moms. In 1975, in Utah, 25 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds and 13 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds were unmarried when they gave birth. Twenty years later, those numbers were 75 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

- In general, teens who have babies are serious about each other. They've been dating for a year. Nationally, only a fourth of the couples get married.

- The determining factor as to whether or not the teen parents live with each other after the baby is born (with or without marriage) seems to be money. Older teens who have jobs or teens from wealthier families are more likely to make their own households.

- Whether or not they live together, one study done among inner-city, low-income dads showed 95 percent of teen dads give money to the baby's mother.

- The couple tends to become dissatisfied with each other after the baby is born. Of couples who didn't marry, one study showed 52 percent of dads had a new girlfriend by the time the baby was 18 months old.

- A long-term study of working-class families in Baltimore showed one-fourth of unmarried teen fathers stayed involved in their children's lives, year after year. Children who had close ties with their fathers, even though they didn't live together, were found to do better in school, were less depressed and less likely to have a baby themselves at an early age.

- If they do get married, teen moms report better self-esteem and more money than their single-mom counterparts. (No report on the dads' self-esteem.)

- Teen parents who don't marry or live together are more likely to stay in school. This is true for both sexes.

- If teens marry, they fight big odds. One survey shows 75 percent of the marriages end by the time the baby is 17 years old. Of the 25 percent still married, more than half the moms report being unhappily married. (No report on the dads' happiness.)

- For young men, social pressure is real. In one study, black males in segregated schools had the nation's highest rates of fatherhood. In racially mixed schools, they became fathers no more often than other students.

- Men in their twenties who father children by teenagers are a lot like teenagers themselves. Compared to their peers, they are less likely to be employed, less likely to have finished high school, are less mature and more egocentric.

- Fear of AIDS may be changing pregnancy rates, at least in one study in big cities where 60 percent of males 15 to 19 are sexually active. Fifty-eight percent use condoms, more than twice as many as used condoms 15 years earlier.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Teen births

Number of births to teens ages 15-17 in Utah

.. All teens Single teens

1988 1,189 746

1990 1,145 730

1992 1,336 905

1994 1,433 1,052

1996 1,460 1,060

Number of births to teens ages 18-19 in Utah

.. All teens Single teens

1988 2,132 826

1990 2,532 1,039

1992 2,530 1,139

1994 2,611 1,242

1996 2,969 1,518

SOURCE: Utah Children