From left to right, J’Candyce Burrell, Andralina Queen and Zachariah Burrell participate in Making Proud Choices! training in Port Gibson.

The Trump administration’s decision to end funding for a federal teen pregnancy prevention program will hamper efforts to combat the high teen birth rate in Mississippi, private agencies working with the program say.

Three groups in Mississippi are among the 81 organizations around the country — including Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and Johns Hopkins University — to receive notice from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently that it would be ending the five-year grants aimed at finding effective ways of reducing unwanted pregnancies in teens.

Mississippi has the third highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The Mississippi groups impacted by the cuts are Ridgeland-based My Brother’s Keeper, Inc., Delta Health Alliance in Stoneville and Teen Health Mississippi in Jackson.

My Brother’s Keeper official say their group will no longer be able to provide the same level of support to other community organizations battling the high teen birth and sexually transmitted disease rates in southwest Mississippi, which has a teen birth rate three times the national average.

For Delta Health Alliance and Teen Health Mississippi, an arm of the nonprofit Mississippi First, efforts to reach youth in the Delta and older teenagers transitioning out of high school are also jeopardized.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the decision was made in keeping with President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, and the Department’s grants office sent notices to recipients in order to give them time to plan.

The total cuts amount to $213.6 million nationwide, according to a story posted by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Tom Price, the newly appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services, supported abstinence-only sex education while a congressman from Georgia and spoke out against the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of birth control while in Congress.

Impact on My Brother’s Keeper

Deja Abdul-Haqq of My Brother’s Keeper says the organization is struggling to cope with cuts to grants designed to reduce the high teen birth rate in Southwest Mississippi.

Deja Abdul-Haqq, the director of the office of organizational development at My Brother’s Keeper, said her office received notice that the current fiscal year would be the last year of funding for the project.

The grant was originally slated to end in fiscal year 2020, and the hope was the efforts would reach 1,500 11 to 19-year-olds in six rural southwestern counties.

Now Abdul-Haqq said she and her coworkers are struggling to figure out how they will change what was originally a five-year strategy to three years, in addition to coping with a loss of $1.25 million in funding they expected to receive.

My Brother’s Keeper is using its federal grant to work with three local nonprofits to help build capacity in those organizations to implement a teen pregnancy prevention program and sustain it after the money runs out. Abdul-Haqq says they used the first year to plan how to most effectively train and work with these groups to have the greatest, and longest, impact.

“We work with lots of community-based organizations across the South, and what we are suffering with is a capacity issue. A lot of our nonprofit organizations in rural areas serving some of our most disadvantaged communities don’t have the infrastructure to successfully implement sustainable programs,” she explained. “So instead of us going in (and implementing the program ourselves), we went and selected three organizations that serve the Southwest River region to build their capacity to implement an evidence-based program … That way, when the funding is over they still have capacity to implement the program.”

Now, however, “we have to completely revamp how we plan to help sustain the efforts,” she said. That means instead of expanding My Brother’s Keeper’s work with more organizations this year as originally planned, at least half of the year will be dedicated to making sure the existing three groups can continue what they’ve started.

Southwest Mississippi organizations had benefited from federal funds

My Brother’s Keeper has been working with three groups — Kai Productions, a film production company that works with youth, Magnolia Medical Foundation and Fayette Community Service Organization — to use a curriculum called “Making Proud Choices!” to teach teenagers the knowledge and skills to reduce their risk of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, My Brother’s Keeper steers course participants who need health care services such as birth control to a network of medical facilities in the area.

Because the curriculum is not abstinence-only, the course was taught outside of the schools.

In Mississippi, state law requires school boards to adopt an abstinence-based sex education policy categorized as either abstinence-only or abstinence-plus. “Abstinence-only” programs teach the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity and “teaches the harmful consequences to the child, the child’s parents and society that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to produce, including the health, educational, financial and other difficulties the child and his or her parents are likely to face, as well as the inappropriateness of the social and economic burden placed on others,” according to the law.

Neither abstinence-only or abstinence-plus sex education can include instruction and demonstration on the application and use of condoms. Abstinence-only instruction can include a discussion on contraceptives, but only if information about the “risks and failure rates” of the contraceptives is included.

“Abstinence-plus” education can also teach “other contraceptives, the nature, causes and effects of sexually transmitted diseases, or the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, along with a factual presentation of the risk and failure rates,” the law states.

Claiborne County and Jefferson County school districts both use abstinence-only education, while the Natchez-Adams School District uses abstinence-plus, according to Teen Health Mississippi.

Southwest Mississippi has a teen birth rate of or 71.8 per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, which is three times the national average. It also has some of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the nation.

My Brother’s Keeper helped spread the word about the course by advertising on the radio and in newspapers, but Abdul-Haqq said word of mouth played a big part in participation as well.

“Once those kids had that first training, they went back to their neighborhoods and that created a surge of people saying ‘I want to participate, I want to learn, I want my kids to be a part of the process,'” she said.

Delta Health Alliance program hoped to reach larger audiences

The Delta Health Alliance uses the funding it receives from the same federal program to help implement programs on a larger scale.

The Delta Health Alliance is using its funds to assist nine public school districts and five Rural Health Clinics in the Mississippi Delta in replicating evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programs in their facilities. Their project aims to reach 7,000 young people in nine counties, where the teen birth rate ranges from 41.1 per 1,000 females ages 15-19 to as high as 101.9 per 1,000 females ages 15-19.

“We are currently exploring options related to the grant after year 2018,” Delta Health Alliance CEO Karen Matthews said.

Teen Health Mississippi targets older teens

Teen Health Mississippi, the teen sexual reproductive health and rights arm of the nonprofit Mississippi First, also will be impacted by the cuts.

The group is one of a handful of organizations nationally to receive a subgrant from Texas A&M University, which was awarded money to fund innovative teen pregnancy prevention programs.

Emily Feher, the interim executive director of Teen Health Mississippi, said this is the first year of the grant and the $85,000 they are receiving will be used mostly for information gathering and planning purposes. But because of the cuts, the group won’t be eligible to apply for a second year of funding.

The aim of the program is to target teens ages 17 to 19 who receive health services from school-based health centers to ensure they have access to contraception and other health services once they graduate or leave school. Feher explained that 18 and 19-year-olds in Mississippi have the highest rate of teen births.

“There’s definitely a gap in Mississippi. A lot of teen pregnancy prevention programs focus on students in middle and high school with sex ed, but there is a portion of the population of older teens that experience the highest rate of teen births … and they’re getting left out of that equation,” Feher said.

Teen Health Mississippi houses statistics about teen birth rates and individual school districts’ sex education policies by county on its website.

Feher and her staff will be using the first year of funding to develop a program that connects these older teenagers with other health care services when they graduate.

“This first year would be … getting a lot of information from our target population. Finding out where they end up after high school, where do they currently get services, what kind of services do they get and what are they in need of,” Feher said.

She said she plans to continue with the research and planning for the program in hopes of finding additional funding in the future.

“Doing this groundwork in developing a solid program I think is necessary, even if we don’t have guaranteed second-year funding,” she said.

A total of $432 million in Teen Pregnancy Prevention grants were awarded during the second administration of the grants in 2015 under the Obama administration by the Office of Adolescent Health’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. The first round of grants ran from 2010 to 2015, reaching almost half a million youth in 39 states and Washington, D.C., according to the program’s website.

The grants replaced programs started under President George W. Bush that funded abstinence-only sex education.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.