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September 19, 2008

Inside the Gloucester Pregnancy Pact

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gloucester teenage pregnancy pact

Amanda Ireland, 18, with her 4-year-old daughter, Haley, photographed by the harbor in July.

Photo Credit: Danielle Levitt

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Although she doesn't have a job or a diploma yet, Kyla does have a solid support system. Her parents are Gloucester natives who've been together for 20 years. Her mom cleans rooms at a motor inn by the ocean; dad delivers packages for FedEx. He relocated his NASCAR collectibles from his "Man Room" so that his daughter could use it as a nursery. Great-grandpa-to-be even surprised Kyla with a sage-green baby carriage, embroidered with giraffes.

And, no, it's not as if this pregnancy is forcing Kyla to trade in a promising academic career for poop-stained onesies. Kyla hates school and hadn't given too much thought to college. "I'm the spoiled brat," she says, laughing, and her mother chuckles. But she will return for her senior year in November, eight weeks after giving birth, and, she hopes, secure one of seven coveted spots in the high school's free day-care program. "I picked a heck of a time to get pregnant," she says. "There are so many girls having babies now."

And not just in Gloucester. The Centers for Disease Control reported a 3 percent jump in the teen birth rate for 2006—the first increase in 15 years. Some blame Hollywood's glamorization of unplanned pregnancy—cool-chick comedies like Juno and Knocked Up; 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears's declaration on the cover of OK! that "Being a mom is the best feeling in the world!"

But it doesn't seem to be Greenwich and Santa Barbara girls who are susceptible to these messages. It's the ones in devastated inner cities and has-been towns like Gloucester, where fishermen are hurting for work since the shoals were stripped bare, while preppies colonize the coastline in multimillion-dollar mansions. Where Catholics battle progressives over whether schools should pass out condoms. And where girls like Kyla Brown short-circuit their futures.

When Amanda Ireland was 13, she and her father, a Gloucester factory worker who had a tough time keeping a job, were living in Ohio. There, Amanda lost her virginity in the living room of their decrepit apartment to a sweet boy named Donovan. They'd had sex twice in one afternoon—the second time without a condom. After missing her period twice and being more tired and cranky than your average seventh-grader, she wanted a pregnancy test. Amanda had no money and wasn't allowed to walk through her neighborhood alone, so she asked Donovan to get her one. Later, a doctor confirmed that she had joined a statistic. Soon, she moved back to Gloucester.

Amanda, now 18, sits at a local seafood restaurant where her aunt is a waitress. She picks up a beef kabob with her long acrylic nails, in swirling yellow-and-white polish. Her $8-an-hour job bagging groceries at the Stop & Shop leaves her short at the end of the month, so she supplements with welfare checks. Though Amanda and her 4-year-old, Haley, share a tiny apartment with her mother, money is always tight. Still, she knows she has a lot to be proud of.

After giving birth to her chubby-cheeked daughter, Amanda wrote a list of dreams to chase: Get a job. Get a car. Finish high school. "I've accomplished the short-term goals," she says, twirling a lock of the long hair she's growing in order to donate it to charity. "Because nothing was going to stop me." And now it's time to attend to her long-term goals: Go to college. Study business. Open a bed and breakfast. Get married. Amanda will matriculate at North Shore Community College just as Kyla Brown gives birth—and Amanda, Kyla's best friend, will be the baby's godmother.

On a typical Friday night, Kyla and Amanda stroll through the Liberty Tree Mall, a mini city of mid-priced stores 20 minutes down Route 128 in Danvers, MA. Usually Kyla's mom drops her off with her guy friends, because girls are "so bitchy." But Amanda's an exception. They met in bio class last year and started hanging out immediately. On a recent night, as big-bellied Kyla and stroller-pushing Amanda wandered through the mall, a woman in her 20s stared them down, appalled. Kyla didn't notice; Amanda was used to it.

Like many of the North Shore kids marooned at the mall with no money, Kyla and Amanda tend to browse rather than buy (Deb and Wet Seal are favorite stores). Still, they come, because Gloucester offers few options. Dance night at the bowling alley was shut down when kids got too rowdy. For a while there was a teen center that hosted student bands, but that was closed because of fights. And so, weekends here see roving groups of kids hanging out at the 7-Eleven by the projects or along the flag-lined harbor front. Others will gather in someone's basement to play video games, or sneak out to the woods with 30-packs of cheap brew.


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