Feds’ decision to kill sex-ed grants stirs worries in South Georgia

Ashley Williams of Quest for Change’s teen pregnancy prevention program discusses abstinence and adolescent sexuality at Pataula Charter Academy in Edison, Ga. The Trump administration canceled much of the program’s funding earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Quest for Change.

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Ashley Williams of Quest for Change’s teen pregnancy prevention program discusses abstinence and adolescent sexuality at Pataula Charter Academy in Edison, Ga. The Trump administration canceled much of the program’s funding earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Quest for Change.

Angelina Jackson of Edison, Ga., population 1,451, likes the classroom work she does for Quest for Change.

She is proud of the “scenario” she and her fellow teenagers set up at Calhoun County High School placing classmates in the role of a girl who had unprotected sex and doesn’t know whether she’s pregnant.

They set up desks around the room in the role of different services the teen might have to navigate, and they sent the student through the conversations and decisions they’d have to make either way.

Quest for Change, a youth and family development-focused nonprofit run out of tiny Dawson, Ga., trained Jackson and other teenagers in how to discuss pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and healthy relationships with their peers. But the program will almost certainly be shuttered by this time next year, since it receives 87 percent of its teen pregnancy funding from the federal government.

The group is one of three in Georgia that saw its money for anti-teen pregnancy initiatives abruptly and atypically cut short by the Trump administration earlier this month. Organizers are worried it will create a vacuum in rural and poor areas of the state such as Calhoun County, where local teenagers won’t be able to find full and accurate information about sex.

“It is going to be devastating,” said Shaunae Motley, Quest for Change’s director of programs.

Early end date

Motley’s organization and 80 others across the country were recently notified by the federal Department of Health and Human Services that the five-year grants they applied for and won in 2015 would be cut off two years ahead of schedule.

“All of these grantees were given a project end date of June 30, 2018, allowing the grantees an opportunity to adjust their program and plan for an orderly close-out,” an HHS representative said in an emailed statement.

The cuts totaled more than $213 million, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting's Reveal News, which first reported the story. Georgia would see $6 million in cuts.

The department did not make any officials available for an interview, nor did it provide more details about the decision. But Health Secretary Tom Price, a social conservative, voted to eliminate the department's Title X family planning program when he represented Georgia's 6th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. He was also a vocal opponent of Obamacare and its birth control mandate, which he said infringed on religious freedom.

Georgia falls in the top 20 nationally in terms of the highest teen birth rates, according to data from the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, although the rate has declined substantially over the past two decades. Slightly more than 25 births were reported per 1,000 teens ages 15 to 19 in Georgia in 2015, according to the advocacy group.

The rates are particularly high in rural South Georgia, where the local health care infrastructure is thin. Since many local communities are deeply religious, information about birth control can be tough to come by for young people, Motley said.

“It’s our job as adults to support (teenagers’) development by ensuring they have access to full and quality information,” she said. “That’s the only way we’ll continue to see teen pregnancy rates drop.”

New approach

Jackson knew she was effective when a young girl approached her quietly, outside a classroom, with questions no adult could imagine a high school freshman would ask.

“I think she was familiar with my face being in the classroom,” said Jackson, 17. “I think she felt like I was not only educated about her concerns but somebody she could talk to during the day.”

Groups such as Quest for Change received commitments for five years worth of grant money from the Obama administration to teach comprehensive sexual education in more innovative ways in underserved, high-risk communities.

In three southwest Georgia counties, Quest for Change has done this by training local students such as Jackson and Alexis Law, also 17, to help plan programming and teach issues such as abstinence, birth control and combating sexually transmitted infections. They also discuss other subjects such as healthy relationships, teen dating violence and social media etiquette as part of their curriculum.

Law said she is surprised at some of the questions she gets from fellow teens. She says they ask her simply because she’s got the backup and credible information from Quest for Change.

“There was one crazy question, a girl asked me could I get pregnant if the sperm — I don’t even remember, it was crazy,” she said. “Because all they know is, ‘I can have sex.’ ”

The biggest program in Georgia is run by the Morehouse School of Medicine, which, like Quest for Change, partners with local middle schools, high schools and churches to teach sex ed in six counties, including in metro Atlanta and South Georgia, to nearly 3,500 teenagers. A third, based out of Augusta, aims to reduce the pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rate among local teenagers by 15 percent over five years.

Final sprint

Notice of the federal funding ending has sent organizers scrambling to plan for their final year of programming. Managers said they felt like the rug was pulled out from under them after their programs were just beginning to hit their strides.

Alice Jackson, who runs Morehouse’s program, said the university plans to work with the local organizations it partners to help them find other sources of funding.

“We’re having to step up to see what we can do to try and help them because it kind of puts them in a difficult place right now,” she said.

Motley said her organization plans to spend money to increase local awareness of sexually transmitted infections and AIDS.

“We’re stepping it up,” Motley said. “We’re trying to train as many people as we can. We’re having conversations with districts about possible ways to infuse sex education within their health and PE programs … so that maybe the evidence-based program can still go on.”

But Morehouse’s Jackson worries that irreparable damage can be done in regions such as South Georgia.

“It leaves the communities at a real disadvantage,” she said. “They don’t have the cushion to continue to run a program.”

Based on her conversations with fellow high school students, Calhoun County’s Angelina Jackson said she sees real value in prevention work.

“Nowadays our youth are so uneducated,” Jackson said. “Their parents are uneducated. We have to stop it now while you can reach out to them. And hopefully it’ll be a much better change for the upcoming generation.”


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