ST. JOSEPH — A day in the life of 18-year-old Courtney Smith is like most teenagers her age in St. Joseph — counting down to graduation while still maintaining her grades and completing an internship. But what sets her apart from most girls is she's also caring for her 3-month-old daughter.
Courtney is one of hundreds of new moms in Buchanan County attempting to balance her school work, social life and her baby's needs. Unlike the stereotype, however, Courtney and her daughter Kasiyah have a huge support system through her parents, 20-year-old boyfriend, Aaron Buckner, and 75 other teen moms in the area who meet monthly at the YWCA.
"I think if you have a good support system, you're able to do more. If you don't, I think that's when you hear the statistics about people dropping out of school," she said. "That's not even an option for me."
While Courtney's lifestyle has done a 180-degree turn, she has a good, confident head on her shoulders. The new mom was able to stay on top of homework during her maternity leave (though she missed the senior class picture) and plans to continue her education to become a stenographer. The one difference, she said, is experiencing a dramatic change in the number of friends, as well as her would-be experiences as a young girl.
"I actually like being a mom," she said.
Parenting doesn't come without its share of challenges, however, including misconceptions from others. But the Central High School senior says she can't move forward with her life if she lets them keep her down.
"I feel like an adult trapped in a teenager's body," she said. " ... I just feel like this was kind of how it was supposed to be. I just do my best to take care of her."
Courtney is not alone in her role as a teen mother. Births to teens ages 15 to 19 actually decreased in Buchanan County from 2007 to 2011 (the latest data available), but the county's standing in the state and the nation is well above the average.
According to Missouri Kids Count, 163 babies were born to teen moms in 2011, down from 222 in 2007. In 2012, 101 babies were born to teen moms, according to data from Heartland Regional Medical Center.
The rate of teen births in Buchanan County is way above the national and state average, however. According to County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Buchanan County has a birth rate of 62 children per 1,000 teens — the national benchmark is 21, and the state's is 42.
That means that only 21 out of 115 counties in the state have a higher teen birth rate than Buchanan County.
But perhaps the most shocking thing is those statistics don't include girls younger than 15, since the area has seen a rise in those cases in the past few years — some as young as 12 years old.
"It's interesting that they don't keep stats on that, but they are getting younger," said Traci McChristy, JUMP coordinator for the YWCA, adding she is working with seven girls ages 12 to 15 who are either pregnant or parenting.
Cindy Merritt, medical social worker at Heartland Regional Medical Center, said of her patients in 2012, 94 were under the age of 19. Sixteen of those patients were under 16. (Ms. Merritt's patients must be on Missouri Medicaid, so the numbers do not reflect the total number of births to teen moms at Heartland.)
So far this year, she's worked with 19 teen patients, five of whom are 15 or younger.
"I've noticed a lot of the referrals that I'm getting I remember the names, because I've seen them in the past with their first baby when they were 14. And now they're having their second baby when they're 16," Merritt said, adding that in 2012, 19 of her teen patients were on their second child.
Fortunately for these teen mothers, financial and supportive resources are available. The JUMP Program (Journey to Unite Mentors and Parents) at the YWCA works with teens and their children until they reach 3 years old, providing encouragement to continue their education, as well as give parenting advice.
McChristy said their mission is to teach expectant teens and teen mothers how to be good parents, both through home visitations and group meetings. The girls meet once a month as a large group of 75, and again in smaller groups at Benton, Lafayette and Central high schools, where they're provided tips on their child's development, as well as ways to be good mothers. The program does not meet at area middle schools as a way to keep additional pressure off the younger girls, who McChristy said already experience bullying from both kids and adults.
"These kids want to learn. They desperately want to do their best," she said. " ... I have some really great teen moms."
JUMP also provides the girls with diapers, books, toys and cribs for their babies, but only after earning points by attending meetings and reading to their children. McChristy said the program no longer has money to buy items for the baby store because of budget restraints. She worries these teens will stop attending without the rewards, and in turn will miss valuable advice on raising their children.
Courtney added, however, that to her the resources through JUMP are invaluable, not just as a supplement to her and Aaron's budget, but as a way to connect with friends who understand their situation.
"I'm grateful for that program," she said. " ... I had a million friends and we all used to hang out, but now that I have a baby they're (hesitant). They don't want to interfere in my life."