Over the past year, "Primetime" has traveled the country, closely following the red-hot issue of teen pregnancy. From kids raising kids of their own, to the warriors on the battlegrounds of sex education, we've been investigating every angle of America's first teen birth rate rise in 15 years -- an epidemic that costs tax payers over $9 billion a year and affects every socio-economic group.
To bring these statistics to life, Primetime's Jay Schadler followed a cross-country group of teens and their families.
Watch the premiere of "Primetime: Family Secrets" TUESDAY June 23 at 10 p.m. ET.
From Yakima, Wash.: Hannah, an 18-year-old senior and homecoming queen. From Longview, Texas: Paige, 14, and raising a five-month-old with help from her mother. From Louisville, Ky: 15-year-old Mahogany, who attends a school for pregnant teens while mothering 3 month-old Khaesyn. And from Haverhill, Mass.: Aliki and Jeremy, high school seniors trying to co-parent their 18-month-old son Carter, even as their own relationship is on the rocks.
The common denominator for all these new parents? They've been forced to grow up -- fast.
"I would never have wanted this for myself or anyone," says Hannah, in the Pacific Northwest.
For Hannah and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, who were once labeled the most popular couple in school, their carelessness came with a big price. Hannah became pregnant at 18, missing out on her senior year and going through her pregnancy alone.
"Sex is not worth it. Going through all this and it can happen that fast ... and then like your whole life changes ... and it's no one fault but mine," she said. Forcing herself to ignore the hallway gossip, Hannah says her strength came from knowing she was about to be responsible for not one but two baby girls: she was having twins.
Two thousand miles away in East Texas, eighth-grader Paige and her mom Sonja are pulling all-nighters. Instead of cramming for exams, they're taking shifts caring for Paige's 5-month-old daughter, Siylar.
This takes a toll on both mother and daughter. "My whole life just stopped and went backwards. I'm 50 almost you know? I've raised all my babies and I'm doing it again. It blows me away...Paige is 14 and she still needs to be mothered...I didn't get asked. 'Mom, do you want to spend every day changing diapers?'" she told Jay Schadler.
Teen Regrets: 'I Just Wish I Had Waited'
Ironically, unlike a third of teens who say they never had a useful conversation about sex with a parent, Paige had frank discussions with her mother on the topic. "I've talked to her until I was like crazy blue in the face...she didn't think it would happen to her. Isn't that the cliche?" said Sonja.
"I just wish I had waited," Paige told Schadler. "God didn't make you to have sex when you're young. God made you to have sex when you found somebody that you love and you want to marry."
Paige isn't the only teenager who regrets growing up too quickly. Among teens that have had sex, 55 percent of boys and 72 percent of girls say they wish they had waited, reports The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
15-year-old Mahogany wishes she had waited too. "If I could take back being a mother, I have to say, I would take it back. I still wish I had the baby, maybe ten years down the road, but it's too early for me. It's too many responsibilities."
Mahogany attends TAPP, or the Teenage Parent Program, a special school for pregnant and parenting girls in Louisville. For 39 years, TAPP has provided nursery services for babies while their moms are in school, as well as crucial education and a nurturing environment for the mothers themselves -- even the lockers here are pink.
It's a lifeline for someone like Mahogany who might otherwise sink under the overwhelming responsibility of raising little Khaesyn mostly on her own.
Mahogany's mother was a teen parent but Mahogany is determined that the cycle will stop with her son. "It's really hard because I'm determined to do school and then sometimes I feel like going crazy. But you know, I have to do it. I don't have a choice...It's not like I can just go back in time and it never happened. It's happened, so I have to keep going."
Mahogany keeps daily school journals filled with her homework assignments right next to her doctor's appointments and after-school job interviews. She circles inspirational quotes in the journals, like this one from Mia Hamm: "The backbone of success is usually found in...hard work, determination, good planning, and perseverance," which keep her motivated to accomplish bigger things in her life.
Unlike Mahogany, high school student Aliki has help from her baby's father. As a sophomore two years ago, she became pregnant just a few weeks after she started dating Jeremy. They used birth control pills and condoms but somewhere along the way, something went wrong.
"When it started off we did every precaution we could to prevent it, except abstinence," says Jeremy, who nevertheless has no regrets about the outcome. "I can't look at Carter and be like, 'you're a mistake,' that's impossible for me to do, I love that little boy so much."
Teens Struggle to Raise Newborn
"I was confused, I was mortified, all I could think was, 'Oh my God, I'm a sophomore. What am I gonna do? How am I gonna get through this?'"
Jeremy and Aliki now raise 18-month-old Carter together, while trying to graduate from high school. Along with four dogs, two cats and a bird, the couple and their child live with Aliki's parents in a working-class town in Massachusetts.
Jeremy, who grew up without a father, works 40 to 50 hours a week at a local pub, while trying to balance his new family and school.
"Right now I'm trying my hardest, it's not a matter of 'Can I?' It's a matter of 'Am I willing to try and get it done?', because you can do anything if you're willing to put the amount of effort needed to get it done."
Educating Teens About Sex
Trying to "get it done" -- the hard work of teaching teens about sexuality, and arming them with information -- is the job of educators Carol Ireland and Tonya Waite, who are on opposite sides of the sex education debate. In a country divided over how to best educate today's youth about sex, the debate squares off over two main questions: how much information is too much, and how should that information be presented?
Carol Ireland is the pregnancy and parenting teen specialist for Haverhill Public Schools, where Aliki and Jeremy attend. A nurse by profession and "savior" by reputation, she's reached hundreds of teens in over 17 years in the public school system.
Her door always open, Ireland, is at the forefront of educating teens about sex, providing vital information for her students in a way that many of their parents aren't able or willing to do.
"They need accurate information about how their body works. They think they know it, but they don't. There's no such thing as safe sex, but there's safer. To know how to make themselves safer if they are engaging in a sexual manner, how to make themselves as safe as possible, and to know the consequences because there's so much misinformation that goes along with the pressure to be sexually active."
Tonya Waite has a different method for preventing teen pregnancy her goal is to make "saving oneself" until marriage the "cool" thing to do. As the Director of The East Texas Abstinence Program, also know as "Virginity Rules," she has reached over 60,000 students in nine years. She uses billboards, commercials, t-shirts and other swag reach out to her community's young people on a level they understand.
Debate Rages: Abstinence Education vs. Contraception
She insists students can and do abstain. "I hear adults saying, 'Well, what are you teaching abstinence education for? They're not gonna do it anyway, you know. They're just a bunch of animals.'"
In fact, 64 percent of the students enrolled in Virginity Rules programs have pledged to abstain from sexual activity until marriage, whether or not they were sexually active in the past. According to the National Abstinence Education Association, approximately 2.5 million students receive abstinence education in this country.
Waite teaches her students that nothing but abstinence is a sure thing. As she explained to Primetime's Jay Schadler, "I think it's more truthful. I think that we educate kids like that on tobacco, on drugs, on alcohol, on cigarettes. And I don't understand why we don't take that same concept with sex."
She thinks that stressing the "success" of contraception gives kids the message that it's okay to have sex.
Her teaching methods? "A little bit of fear and a whole lot of hope, that there is something better."
Ireland disagrees. "As far as condoning sexual activity, by giving information, by making condoms available, it is not true. It's not just making things available but it's also about talking about goals and those consequences and emotional consequences in their lives as to why to prevent a pregnancy or an STI."
Both women remain committed to keeping their students safe in spite of drastic funding cuts over the past year. And despite their philosophical differences, they agree that without education, lives are at stake.
Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas in Austin who studies teen sexual behavior, sums up the ongoing debate when he says, "It's a conundrum: abstinence, when truly practiced, is inarguably effective. It's just not very common among older teens and young adults...I think we ought to hope for the best yet prepare youth with plenty of knowledge about their bodies, their choices, and the norms that pervade their cultures. To me that's a win-win situation."