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Group links at-risk births, sex abuse

An infant mortality group looks at the ways child sex abuse leads to risky behavior in teens.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2000

LARGO -- As the executive director of Pinellas County's Healthy Start Coalition, Debra Bara knew people might wonder why an organization that combats infant mortality would decide to organize a meeting about sexual abuse.

"Are you all scratching your heads?" she said to a group of about 50 social service workers Friday.

No one was, because they understood. Child sexual abuse can sometimes lead girls to behave in ways that, years later, will make them more likely to be at risk of having a low birth weight baby.

And those are the frail babies who sometimes do not live to their first year.

So counselors, educators and health care workers convened Friday to discuss ways of raising awareness about the link between child sex abuse, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and infant mortality.

"My ultimate goal is to have less sexual abuse of children so that we have less teenage pregnancy, less substance abuse and (less) dropping out from school," said Dr. Jeane McCarthy, a neonatologist at All Children's Hospital who is chairwoman of Healthy Start's Fatal and Infant Mortality Review Committee.

Participants in Friday's meeting explained the situation this way:

Victims of sexual abuse often are more likely to engage in sexual activity at a young age, and to do drugs or alcohol. Girls who give birth in their teen years have been shown to be more at risk of giving birth to low birth weight babies, who are more fragile and more likely to die as infants.

When mothers use drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, that also can make them more likely to give birth to a smaller baby, in addition to other health problems the child may suffer.

M.J. Sutcliffe, manager of the Safe Center victims program for the Family Service Centers, said the experience of abuse is traumatic for children. So children who don't have counseling and support are more likely to "turn to negative habits, ways of not thinking. So, of course, kids would self-medicate. Really, those are coping strategies."

Self-medicating refers to someone who uses drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with some other issue.

Several participants said incidents of abuse interrupt a child's normal development. Part of their meeting was to discuss early identification and treatment for victims.

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