A Numbers Problem

Brenda Sanchez, 23, just passed her GED. It's been a long road for this daughter of migrant farm workers, who was born in California and spent her formative years traveling back and forth to Mexico with her family.

Sanchez, who now lives in King City, found it difficult to keep up with her schools curriculum given her family's constant mobility. After she became pregnant with her first child at age 16, things only got more difficult.

"My parents are very old-fashioned, and I think I got pregnant to try to get away from them," she says. "I thought if I had a kid I could be an adult. I was wrong."

Cal-SAFE, a program that allows teen moms to continue in school by providing daycare for their babies, intervened. Currently operating at several high schools in the county and in the process of expanding, Cal-SAFE offered Sanchez parenting education and referrals for social services.

But over the next six years, Sanchez had two more babies and gave up on school altogether. A 10th grade drop-out, she found the only work she could get was cleaning homes. She dreamed of the day where she could work in a nice office as a clerk or a receptionist.

Continuing her education seemed impossible until the Migrant Child Development Center in San Lucas stepped in, providing child care for Sanchez's kids while she attended a seven-week intensive GED prep course at CSU Monterey Bay.

"At first I thought my husband wasn't going to let me, but he did," she says. "Now he's really proud of me and wants me to go to college."

College plans will have to wait, however, as Sanchez looks for work to help husband Enrique, a field worker, support their family of five. Sanchez is excited that, with her GED high school equivalency, she can now apply for an office job.

"School is really important," she says. "I wanted something more for me. I want to tell teenagers not to have kids until they have an education so they can offer something better to their kids. I'm not [there] yet, but hopefully I am on my way."

The latest Tellus/Díganos report, the first one solely devoted to the state of children and youth in Monterey County, reveals that the issues Brenda Sanchez and her family face are common in Monterey County.

The report shows that a huge percentage of Monterey County kids are living in poverty—more than 50 percent of school-age children.

It also shows that this poverty is localized in certain areas. There is a clear tendency toward larger families in Salinas and the Salinas Valley, and smaller households on the Peninsula. As the Tellus report explains, the number of people living together in a home correlates with stress on the family and children, and can indicate poverty.

Going hand-in-hand with the poverty are startling statistics on education—45 percent of kids in the county are being born to mothers who haven't finished high school, which, according to the Tellus report, suggests a likelihood that their own children will not attain an education. With both parents in a poor family needing to work, the demand for affordable child care is huge, and sorely lacking.

Jack Harpster, executive director of Tellus/Díganos, examined demographic and economic data in Monterey County to find the statistical world our children are living in. He says, "The kids who are typically at the highest risk are in the low-wealth conditions. In this county, the largest group of kids happens to be Latino."

As the report shows, there are a staggering number of young women like Sanchez who give birth in their teens. The largest percentage of them are Latina—of 6,895 total births in Monterey County for the year 2000, 4,720 were to Latina moms. The teen moms among them are much less likely to become self-sufficient, finish school, and more likely to remain in poverty conditions. Prognosis for their children is also bleak: according to the report, the kids are more likely to have cognitive and behavioral problems.

Although the teen-birth rate is declining somewhat in Monterey County, we still have one of the highest rates in all of California. For every 1,000 births in Monterey County in 1998, 69 were to mothers under age 17. Even more troubling, perhaps, are indications of a large number of births to poor moms aged 18 to 23, for which specific numbers are not available. In fact, the total lifetime fertility rate for Latina women in California is higher than in Mexico.

"It appears that the Latino population is younger on average and has larger families, and this has real implications on serving them with schools, doctors and agencies," Harpster says. "The majority are located in Salinas and the Salinas Valley, which is also important in terms of government planning and development."

Dr. Robert Melton, Monterey County Health Officer and a member of the Tellus steering committee, notes that much of the public isn't aware of the extent of the migration from Mexico into California that has happened in the past 10 years. He emphasizes that there are agencies in place in Monterey County to serve children, but that they need to look at who our children are.

The report shows that 62 percent of the county's children are Latino, and that percentage is growing rapidly. Over the last six years Latino births in the county went up 14 percent while white births declined 29 percent. More than half of county births in 2000 were paid by Medi-Cal, another sign pointing to kids born in poverty. These are not people on welfare; these are commonly working families unable to earn enough to meet basic needs. Tellus points out that in both the Salinas Valley and on the Peninsula, the largest employers—agriculture and tourism respectively— generally pay below self-sufficiency levels.

While some social service officials are reluctant to theorize on the record, many believe that poverty, lack of education, and cultural factors contribute to Latinos having large families starting at a young age. Although no one is suggesting that Latino families actively promote teen births, it's also not viewed as exceptional.

Sylvana Cooper, coordinator of Cal-SAFE in Soledad, says when she talks to the teen moms in the program, they say, "there's not a lot to do down here," and babies are the result. Cooper is warmed by the successes in her program. "Two years ago one of our girls was Valedictorian at Pinnacles High School," she says. "She went up on stage at graduation and thanked all of us for writing this grant to let her continue in school and be able to graduate. She had all of us in tears."

On the flip side, programs like ECHO (Education, Careers, Health Opportunities) strive to prevent teen pregnancy in the first place. ECHO is in its third year of providing a mentorship program for at-risk young women in the county, specifically Latinas—because the numbers show they are at the highest risk of all ethnic groups of becoming teen parents. The mentors, all volunteers, attempt to convince young women to continue their education past high school, and postpone sexual activity and pregnancy. Currently working out of Alisal High School, the program is expanding to Soledad High next year.

Health care workers in these types of programs struggle against cultural norms and low expectations for Latina women. ECHO's team of nurses and other mentors attempts to educate and empower young women about their bodies, abstinence and birth control, and encourage familial support for continuing education.

As Alene Guthmiller, assistant director of the Family and Community Health Division for the Monterey County Department of Health, says often that's an uphill battle.

"We've got a lot of obstacles that are not just personal but cultural," Guthmiller says. "Too many of the Hispanic fathers don't want their girls to go on to school, not even to Hartnell. We've decided we need to include the parents on board much sooner."

Kim Smith, supervising public health nurse for the County Health Department, launched ECHO with three other health care workers and has seen many local girls living in poverty conditions with a heavy burden from the family outside of their school responsibilities.

"Some girls have to take care of their siblings, do chores, laundry, meal preparation, and work to contribute to the family income," Smith says. "They aren't permitted or able to attend after-school activities and be in clubs."

Working with the parents, ECHO staff encourages families to assist their daughters to go beyond high school. "Our goal is to get them to look at the bigger picture, and if they have a motivation to get to college they will think, 'I don't want to be pregnant, working at McDonald's.'"

At the ECHO meetings, the teenagers are asked to keep a diary and share their feelings with the group. "We tell them, 'Every one of you has potential to do what you want if you focus, study, and hang out with people interested in achieving your goals.' Some of the girls haven't ever thought of going to college. When we build their self-esteem it also prevents them from participating in activities they don't want."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Despite efforts at prevention, most Latino families in Monterey County begin having babies at an early age and go on to have large families. In a vast majority of those families, both parents are working. The shortage of affordable child care then becomes an issue.

"Virtually everyone knows child care is a problem," Jack Harpster says, "and we are working on developing new facilities and improving pay scales. But it's still a massive problem. With both parents working, it puts stress on the families: little ones need to be cared for and there is trouble finding good quality care."

Larry Coppotelli, deputy director of plans and projects at Children's Services International and a member of the Children and Youth Advisory Committee at Tellus, points to the societal advantages resulting in good early care.

"The most important thing we can do to prevent crime is to have after-school programs and quality, early-childhood programs," Coppotelli says. "Life doesn't begin at kindergarten. Like any product, you've got to start up front. We use the analogy that if you are a grower in Monterey County and you have moldy, rotten lettuce, does the farmer take the lettuce and say, 'Gee, what can I do to save this lettuce?' No, you go back to the seeds and cultivation practices to see what you can improve.

"It's the same with people. We've got to pay child care workers more than we pay parking lot attendants. Child development is not warehousing."

The concerns regarding the quality of care are warranted: the Tellus report shows that only 35 percent of the need for child care is being met by licensed programs for children under 5, and only 4 percent of the need for after-school care is being covered for kids 6 to 13.

While licensed care varies in quality, it is totally unknown what is happening to the kids in unlicensed care. Judging by the poor outcomes in test scores, it appears that what many kids are doing is far from enriching.

Less than half of the kids in Monterey County are judged ready for kindergarten, and in South and North County regions only around three kids in 10 are ready.

A lack of home preparation is blamed for these statistics--not surprising given the fact that 45 percent of all children in the county are born to moms who have not finished high school.

"What does the parent model in terms of their attitude towards education?" Melton wonders. "Are they reading to their children? A lack of attention can happen in very low-income families because they are working so hard to support their family and have less time to spend with their kids."

Raul Diaz, director of Child, Youth and Family Services Division for the Monterey County Office of Education, believes that all children can benefit from early intervention programs. Although no one knows exactly what is happening in the home, the glimpses that are attained show kids without books, paper and crayons.

Social services workers continue to find challenges in helping parents educate their kids. Although all Head Start sites have bilingual staff to assist the 38 percent of county kids who are labeled as "English Learners," new arrivals from states in Mexico speaking different dialects add to what Diaz classifies as "a lack of trust."

Lacking the ability to communicate with a family that migrates back and forth to Mexico, program workers feel some real frustrations. Still, Diaz does not pass judgment.

"With Migrant Education Even Start, or MEES, we have the children as the focus, but we reach them via the adults, teaching parenting skills and literacy in the home.

"People will blame those in poverty and say to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps," Diaz says. "But kids bear the burden as well as live it."

Frances Nolder, child development services coordinator at Monterey County Head Start, and a member of the Children and Youth Advisory committee for Tellus, says, "The biggest challenge is to get it through to the parents that learning has to come from the home."

Head Start provides some meals, and free health care--including dental, medical and vision care--for eligible children, as well as parenting education for families. Nolder worries about what will happen to the program with the Bush administration, which has increased funding somewhat, but not enough to keep up with the number of children being added to the program.

"There are a lot of rumors going around about our accountability," says Jan Paulsen, program manager of County Head Start. "There are dire predictions facing what could happen to us."

Nolder asserts that while the Bush administration is looking at kindergarten readiness in judging the program, Head Start provides an entire context of education for the child and family: health, social, and cognitive development. "The state is expecting a lot more as far as academic [performance]. Now that we know what they want, we are trying to connect with the state outcomes."

Whatever the future holds for particular agencies, it seems clear for Monterey County that a collaborative approach must occur in order to address the many facets of our children's needs. Initiatives like United Way's Success by Six are working to avoid redundancies in children's service programs in the county. Pat Schneider, director, says, "We aren't just setting up a new program, but we have a broader scope, looking for collaboration with businesses, providers, parents, and anyone in the community who wants to get involved. We are assessing and evaluating as we go and want to be very flexible."

Maria Giuriato, Tellus steering committee member and management analyst for the County Department of Social Services, concurs.

"We just completed the Farmworker Housing and Health Survey and realized that we have services in place, but many workers are concerned about applying for them," Giuriato says. "We need to do more effective outreach and have a multi-service approach, rather than duplicating services, and address the findings in these reports."

Tellus member Rev. Ken Feske, of Partners for Peace and the Safe Schools Coalition, says it is in the interest of everyone in the county to be pay attention to these kids and their needs.

"We have to make children and youth services one of our highest priorities, even higher than water and roads," Feske says. "We are talking about investing in human capacity and human productivity."

David Maradei, Tellus member and Coordinator of the Child Abuse Council, agrees.

"Child abuse, [including neglect], is everyone's issue," Maradei says. "We cannot escape from it, as members of a civilized society, and it makes good economic sense to solve a problem ahead of time rather than incarcerate at a later date. You pay attention to kids now, or I guarantee you pay for it later."

Moral issues aside, the health of our children ultimately affects the health of our community in every way. For every dollar spent on child care, our economy gets 5-7 dollars back with fewer police interventions. As Coppotelli says, "Most people say, 'I raised my kids, why should I worry about other people's child care?' Well, you should worry if you're walking down the street and one of those kids who didn't get good child care pops you over the head. Then you do care."

Articles reprinted courtesy of Monterey County Weekly
© 2004 Milestone Communications Inc. All rights reserved.

Making Kids Count

Pulling at Art Strings

Grown Up and Proud

Deep Lessons

Learning to Live

School of Life

Everybody Waits

We Are Not Barbie

All In Her Head

Born To Run

One Step at a Time

Gang War Escalates

Bad News for Local Women

Cycle of Support

Venture Philanthropists

Class Acts

Hard Times

Dirty Dancing

Hooking Up

A Numbers Problem

Healing Properties

Teach Your Children Well