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iSociety: are teenagers getting pregnant always such a problem?

The Scottish Parliament's Health and Sport committee is currently investigating the issue of teenage pregnancy and it's already shaping up to be a fascinating inquiry.

The opening evidence session at Holyrood revealed that MSPs decided to focus on the topic because of the 'failure' of existing efforts to tackle the 'problem' of pregnant teens.

The terminology is interesting, because as some of those giving evidence pointed out, it is far from clear that many of the young women involved believe that starting a family is a problem for them. Dr Lorna Watson, of NHS Fife, told the committee that “we certainly come across young women who say it is what they want.”

Ann Eriksen, of NHS Tayside added that “for the young women who said that they wanted to be pregnant and wanted a baby, it was very much about looking for love and affection and looking for someone whom they could love unconditionally and who would love them in return. Another reason was to do with gaining recognition and status in their family and the community. Some young women might not see educational attainment or employment as providing that status, so it almost seems that having a baby means being recognised as moving into adulthood.”

I do think there's a danger that we judge this issue from the middle class perspective that waiting until, say, your thirties to start a family, with a degree and a career under your belt is the only way to proceed.

If you grow up in a family where the habit has been to have children young, and in a community where that is common, is it right to view that as a problem?

The issue is complicated by the wide ranging nature of the statistics involved. Girls who become pregnant before they even reach the age of consent are very different from those of girls of 18 or 19 who decide to have a baby (and much rarer).

Meanwhile Felicity Sung, sexual health and HIV national co-ordinator at the Scottish Government, told the committee that some pregnancies could be neither strictly intended, nor unintended.

It's also complicated by the widespread perception that young girls sometimes become pregnant because they think the local council is more likely to offer them a house.

Prior to the evidence session I sat in on the committee's visit to Smithycroft Secondary in Glasgow, which has a Young Parents' Support Base which has been a great success in keeping school age mums in education.

For what it is worth, the staff there insist it is a myth that teenage mums are automatically given a home, or choose to be parents in order to do so. However Ann Eriksen stated that whether or not it works, young girls in Dundee still do perceive pregnancy as a route to being rehoused.

What was clear from the Holyrood evidence session is that this has never been purely a sexual health issue, although councils have often been keen to pretend that it is.

It is plain that for some young girls, an early pregnancy is not what anyone would wish for them, a massive disruption to their life plans which can disadvantage them for years.

But in the long term any solution which ignores wider issues of poverty, culture and inequalities of opportunity is surely doomed to fail.

In some cases, in the absence of other options, choosing to start a family early can be an entirely rational choice. Unless the committee addresses this realistically perhaps they are not in a position to dismiss the lifestyles of any young girls simplistically as 'a problem'.

Are councils good parents? Not known

I heard a fairly remarkable statistic at an event this week about  children in care.

Apparently, recent research has found that for around one in eight children looked after by Scottish councils, the authority looking after them responded 'not known' when asked if the child had a disability.

That's an average. So factor in the fact that some councils – Glasgow among them, it seems – know whether all but 5% of their 'looked after' children are disabled, then logically in many councils the figure is significantly higher.

How can they not know? you might ask. Well there are good and bad reasons – if a child is too young for a suspected disability to be diagnosed, perhaps, or because the person filling in forms about a child simply doesn't know them.

But even the most charitable explanation would struggle to explain why some councils know so little about the children in their care that in more than 10% of cases they simply don't know if a child is disabled.

Academics at the Centre for Excellence in Looked After Children believe the figures are indicative of the fact that the issue is simply not a priority for councils.

I met them at a fantastic film premiere at Glasgow's Eastwood Park residential school for pupils with complex needs, which showcased a great project which has provided drama sessions to a group of potentially marginalised young people in care, to great effect, thanks to Edinburgh-based Forum theatre group Active Inquiry.

The project is part of a series of seminars CELCIS is running, looking at issues affecting looked after children with disabilities. It is plainly difficult to address questions about their lives if some councils simply don't know event the most basic information.

I think it is worth looking asking councils more questions about what they do and don't know about the children they look after and that's something I'm aiming to do in a forthcoming piece.

Feline let down

I view myself as a sceptic, which to me means that I like policies to be based on evidence and tend to disbelieve things which seem to good to be true. But on Radio 4's Today programme this week there was a fantastic story about a family from Florida who took their cat 200 miles away on holiday with them in their mobile home.

They had to return without the cat after it wandered off, nowhere to be found. But the cat – Holly, since you ask – was later returned, having made it back to their home town.

The radio interviewed the owner, Bonnie Richter, delighted at her pet's achievement, reminiscent of the film The Incredible Journey (for those with long memories). Then they spoke to a pet detective. But the latter rather dismantled the story. He pointed out that the cat's reputation for a 'homing instinct' was probably a myth “if it did exist, it would happen a lot more” he said, and added for good measure that Holly's Florida rescuers would never have returned her to the Richter's, but for the fact that the cat had an implanted microchip.

I'm still proud of being a sceptic. But we don't half know how to strip the romance from a story.

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Families

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