Accusations heat up over county’s teen pregnancy initiative

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Friday, Aug. 22, 2008.)

VINELAND

Teen pregnancy just became a very political issue in Cumberland County.

Nonprofit leaders accused Freeholder Director Lou Magazzu of giving a $100,000 no-bid contract for a teen pregnancy-prevention program to an agency that gave him an award for combating such pregnancies.

Magazzu promptly threatened to sue one of his critics for defamation of character.

As it turns out, there is no contract, and teenage pregnancy remains nearly three times the state average in Cumberland County, according to the most recent statistics.

The angry rhetoric, however, finally laid bare the animosity that had simmered for months. Human services groups have run various programs focusing on combating teen pregnancy, but several freeholders — notably Joe Riley, who runs an ob/gyn medical practice — have dismissed them.

“Why should the taxpayers have to pay for things if it’s going to be done by amateurs?” Riley said.

The dispute dates to Freeholder Doug Rainear’s Children First initiative last year, a response to the 2007 Kids Count report that found once again that Cumberland was the worst county in which to raise a child. Rainear, who was up for re-election last year, convened a large gathering of human-services providers to discuss how best to deal with the various problems that children face.

Dozens of human-services providers took part and formed several committees to tackle the various issues, among them teenage pregnancy. They produced a report in March in which one committee chairman, Oscar Brooks, wrote that members “have become frustrated and disinterested because there was no clear mission and no commitment of resources to this project.”

Many eventually gave up on the initiative, saying they were demoralized after receiving minimal guidance and support from freeholders.

Some have questioned whether it was just a publicity stunt to help Rainear, a close friend of Magazzu, get reelected.

“Was it just for a politician to get a lot of press for what they’re doing about the problem, because they got flack for it?” said Kimberly McKown-Strait, head of FamCare, an organization that provides obstetric and gynecological health care and counseling for thousands of people in southwestern New Jersey. “For Lou Magazzu, who has done nothing? It’s politics. And I try to stay out of politics because we have enough to do.”

In early July, South Jersey HealthCare announced the hospital would partner with the county and the nonprofit Community Health Care, which had not been part of the Children First initiative, in a teenage pregnancy prevention program. Nonprofit leaders heard $100,000 was on the table and saw no request for proposals. Some were confused, and others drew the conclusion that it was a done deal.

“I understand where there’s confusion because $100,000 has been put aside for whoever put forth a proposal for the Children First initiative that freeholders liked,” Magazzu said.

Freeholders haven’t picked that initiative yet, however.

Rainear, a lifelong Cumberland County native, and Magazzu have always maintained the Children First program was driven by his response to a problem, not politics. Rainear and Riley met with South Jersey HealthCare representatives in late June at the request of the hospital, which then brought Community Health Care and the “My Daughter’s Keeper” program into the picture.

Riley said they considered the SJH idea because they weren’t satisfied with ideas from the human services groups.

“They were fluff proposals, like public service messages and videos they wanted kids to watch at the high school,” said Riley, an outspoken advocate for use of birth control. “I think maybe their egos got bruised because I told them they weren’t doing a good job.”

Several nonprofit leaders took offense to Riley, but others weren’t too concerned.

Brooks, whose New Vizzions nonprofit brings teenage mothers into local schools to talk to high school students, said the real problem was that people put in a lot of time without support from freeholders and then were ignored by freeholders.

“Nobody even came to us and said, ‘What you’re doing is pointless, and we’re going in a whole other direction,'” Brooks said. “A lot of people put a lot of time and energy into planning for this, without much help from freeholders, and that’s what’s disturbing. It’s kind of a slap in the face of people who put all the effort into Children First and people like myself, who run a nonprofit with a teenage pregnancy curriculum in place.”

Linda Forbes, who prompted Magazzu’s lawsuit threat with a letter to newspapers criticizing him, said Magazzu had “done nothing” to address the teen pregnancy problem. She said what county leaders should really be doing is spending money to study the dynamics that put Cumberland’s teen pregnancy rate at more than double the nearest county.

“Over half of our county’s teen births are to Hispanics,” wrote Forbes, a retired human services executive who volunteered with Children First. “Will My Daughter’s Keeper be culturally relevant for these girls? How will this program serve the Hispanic population?”

Magazzu said the county is waiting to hear back from the hospital and could advertise for proposals as soon as September. He said that groups that have been dealing with teenage pregnancy for 25 years obviously aren’t succeeding. Those groups say it would help if they got more funding.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” Magazzu said. “This is not a personality conflict. We have a crisis in this county with kids having kids.”

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