Commentary Media

‘16 and Pregnant’ May Work, But We Could Do So Much Better

Gloria Malone

Researchers and the general public may be unable to agree on teen pregnancy shows' contributions to society, but what we all can agree on is that these MTV shows present tired tropes about teen moms that are harmful for young girls.

MTV’s teen pregnancy and parenting reality shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have long been criticized and celebrated by audiences. While some believe the shows glamorize teenage pregnancy, others say they’re a great example of how difficult it is to be a teen mom, suggesting that the shows could lead to a decrease in pregnancy amongst teens.

This week, academics weighed in on the argument, and it turns out they are just as divided as everyone else. On January 9, Science Daily published findings from a study conducted by Nicole Martins of Indiana University Bloomington and Robin Jensen of  the University of Utah. According to their study, during which they interviewed 185 high school students, they found that the more frequently students watched the programs the more likely they were to believe that teenage parents can easily find child care, balance a job and school, live on their own, have access to affordable health care, and finish college. As Science Daily explains, the study is suggesting that “heavy viewers of ‘Teen Mom’ and ‘16 and Pregnant’ have unrealistic views on teenage pregnancy.”

However, in a different study released this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers suggest that MTV’s pregnancy and parenting teen shows have a direct link to the decline of teenage pregnancy by 6 percent. As Rewire ‘s Martha Kempner explains, economists Melissa Kearney and Philip Levine relied on various data sets, including tweets and Nielsen ratings, to measure the influence of the shows.

Researchers and the general public may be unable to agree on the shows’ contributions to society, but what we all can agree on is that the MTV shows present tired tropes about teen moms that are harmful to teenage mothers and their families. As a former teen mom, I can say from personal experience that these “reality” shows provide a very narrow lens through which they broadcast cautionary tales at the expense of a large population of pregnant and parenting teens. These shows present pregnant and parenting teens at their most vulnerable and parade them around for society to gawk at, judge, shame, and use as examples, while simultaneously “otherizing” teenage pregnancy so much that some viewers might incorrectly believe teenage pregnancy won’t happen to them because they are not like “those girls.”

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And it’s not just young people receiving these unrealistic representations of teenage pregnancy and parenting. It’s authority figures, too. As Natasha Vianna explained at a roundtable discussion with Avital Norman Nathman, editor of The Good Mother Myth, “[t]hose gatekeepers—the people who hold our key to success—begin to pity us too. Pity isn’t empowering. Pity isn’t hopeful. Pity encourages privileged people and organizations to make it their mission to vilify us. So this ‘harmless entertainment’ is in fact dangerous.”

The fact of the matter is, sex education and birth control are more effective at stemming the tide of teen pregnancy than any “reality” show ever could. When asked about New York City’s reduction (by almost 30 percent) in teenage pregnancy, Health Commissioner Tom Farley said it was the result of the city making it easier for teens to access contraception. He added that the data “shows that when you make condoms and contraception available to teens, they don’t increase their likelihood of being sexually active. But they get the message that sex is risky.”

City and state programs that are working should be making a larger media splash than studies on television shows that glorify teenage pregnancy and exploit teen parents. It is a disservice to real teenage pregnancy reduction efforts and signals a possible increase in more shaming and stigmatizing ads and public service campaigns by the self-declared “teenage pregnancy prevention” organizations and people.

Suggesting shows like Teen Mom will help reduce teenage pregnancy prevents us from doing the real work required to break the cycle, including providing sex education, access to sexual health services, and more resources for pregnant and parenting teens that can make them feel empowered and less isolated when they find themselves in these situations, as I once experienced.

If educators, parents, policy makers, and nonprofits are serious about reducing teenage pregnancy they need to get real and realize teens are sexual beings. Like New York City demonstrated, when young people have the right information and resources at their disposal, they are more likely to make safer, well-informed decisions about sex.

Analysis Human Rights

Cherelle Baldwin Was Acquitted of Murder, So Why Did She Spend Three Years in Prison?

Victoria Law

Some states, such as Kentucky and, most recently, New Jersey, have taken steps to reform their bail systems. But many others, including Connecticut and New York, still rely on monetary bail to determine who can be released pending trial.

On March 31, Cherelle Baldwin was acquitted of all charges in the death of her abusive ex-boyfriend. That afternoon, she walked out of court a free woman. But at that point, she had had lost nearly three years of her life behind bars, thanks to a $1 million bail that she and her family could not afford.

Her son, Jeffrey, was 19 months old when she went to prison; he was 4 and a half when she came home. For nearly three years, she parented through phone calls, letters, and twice-monthly visits. She called him every day except for Tuesdays, when the prison was locked down and no calls were allowed. She mailed him cards and drawings; Baldwin’s mother, Cynthia Long, mailed back the ones that Jeffrey created in day care.

“We’d play in the [prison visiting room’s] play area,” she told Rewire as she sat next to her son on her mother’s couch, 11 days after her acquittal. She asked questions about his life and routines. “Are you behaving yourself? How is day care?”

Jeffrey usually responded in monosyllables. “He’d answer, ‘Mom,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘I don’t like.'” They would hug and they would cry.

“Well, it was mostly me crying,” Baldwin admitted.

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Baldwin’s story of spending years behind bars while awaiting trial is not exceptional. Across the country, people languish in jails waiting for their day in court. Twelve million arrests are made each year, according to Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute, which advocates for fairness in the pretrial process. Seventy-five percent of those arrests are for misdemeanors. Among those charged with felonies, 47 percent are assigned bail amounts that they are unable to pay; similar numbers are not accessible for misdemeanors. Across the country, 25 percent of people facing felony charges are ultimately found not guilty or have their charges dismissed, including those who posted bail or were otherwise released pretrial. In most states, people remain in jail awaiting trial, but in those with no women’s jail, such as Connecticut, women like Baldwin are sent to the state prison.

Some states, including Connecticut, are attempting to address reforms in the legal system. Still, Baldwin—and others like her across the country—have spent years in jail for crimes they have never been convicted of, simply because they could not afford the price tag attached to freedom.

“Bail Is Based on the Charges You’re Facing”

Bail is a monetary amount set by a judge to ensure that a person returns to court if they are released following arrest. The reasoning is that, by paying a certain amount of money, the person is more likely to show up to court; if not, they forfeit that money. But what ends up happening is a two-tiered system, in which those who can afford to pay can go home to await their day in court while those who cannot, like Baldwin, must stay behind bars.

According to Connecticut’s own guidelines, if a person cannot afford the bail amount set by police at the time of arrest, they are interviewed by bail staff, a process that can change that amount. Bail staff consider specific factors, known as “weighted release criteria,” when determining whether to decrease (or increase) the amount of bail. Those criteria include the nature and circumstances of the charge, the person’s previous convictions, their past record of court appearances, family ties, and employment record. Although Baldwin was charged with murder, she had no previous arrests or convictions, had extended family ties in the area (including her 19-month-old son, Jeffrey), and a full-time job. She had also voluntarily turned herself in after receiving the arrest warrant in the mail a few weeks after her ex-boyfriend’s death and, from the beginning, had claimed self-defense.

Baldwin stated that she was interviewed by bail staff a few hours after turning herself in, but does not recall what was asked. In an email, Deborah Fuller, the director of Family and Juvenile Services of Connecticut’s Court Support Services Division, said that bail staff recommended that Baldwin’s bail be set at $500,000. The court set it at $1 million. Baldwin was taken to York Correctional Institution, the state’s women’s prison that holds women awaiting trial as well as those who have been sentenced.

No one seems to know how often such a discrepancy happens. In an email to Rewire, Rhonda Stearley-Hebert, Connecticut’s Judicial Branch’s program manager of communications, wrote, “We do not have an accurate way to track how many times a judge sets a bond different from what the bail commissioner recommended.”

But that million-dollar amount isn’t unusual, according to Mike Lawlor, the Connecticut governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy. “The most important thing to keep in mind is that bail is based on the charges you’re facing. One million dollars is not unusual for a murder charge,” he told Rewire. He declined to comment on the specifics about Baldwin’s case.

Connecticut also has a Jail Re-interview Program, for people who are incarcerated because of failure to post bail. Jail staff can then change the amount, but the program typically targets those with bail amounts under $100,000. Those with higher amounts can be re-interviewed if the defense attorney requests it.

Baldwin was never interviewed. In fact, she was unaware of this program until her interview with Rewire. “Oh, wow,” she said when learning that such a program existed. “No. They never did that.”

According to Fuller, this was because “at no other time [after the initial interview] was bail staff requested to or participated in a bail hearing.” But Baldwin’s attorney, Miles Gerety, said that he did file a motion and argue in court for a bail reduction after her 2015 mistrial. The judge denied his motion and her bail remained at $1 million.

“I could have appealed Judge [Robert] Devlin’s ruling and might have, had I thought it would have resulted in a bond reduction significant enough for Cherelle’s family to make,” Gerety said in an email to Rewire. “But it was obvious there was no  chance of lowering the bond enough for Cherelle to actually bond out. The focus had to be getting Cherelle acquitted.”

In 2015, the State of Connecticut was one of 20 jurisdictions in the United States awarded a $150,000 grant plus technical support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. According to the MacArthur Foundation’s press release, the grant would allow them to “build plans to create more fair and effective local justice systems.” On April 13, 2016, two weeks after Baldwin was fully acquitted and released from prison, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it was awarding Connecticut an additional $2.5 million to implement jail-related reforms, including programs to divert people with mental illness from jails and to help others post bail. But the state’s reforms will focus on people who are facing lower-level charges and are unable to post bail amounts of $20,000 or less.

“For people charged with murder, the vast majority are going to be confined pretrial because it’s murder,” said Lawlor. “Whether the courts will come up with some process to streamline cases in which self-defense is claimed, I really couldn’t say.”

Not everyone agrees that people charged with murder should stay in jail awaiting their day in court. The Pretrial Justice Institute is a technical consultant to the Safety and Justice Challenge. Its executive director, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, said what happened to Baldwin, from the violence she suffered at the hands of her abusive ex to her three years’ incarceration, was “absolutely horrible.” She said that Baldwin’s job, family ties, lack of substance abuse, and young child should have been considered risk-mitigating factors that would assure her appearance in court and lack of threat to public safety.

“Where was she going to flee to? She had a 19-month-old child, other family members, and a job,” she pointed out.

Instead of Bail…

In recent years, there has been movement to abolish the practice of monetary bail, due in part to high-profile cases like that of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old from New York City who was sent to Rikers Island, the city’s island jail complex where 85 percent of the 10,000 people incarcerated are awaiting trial. Browder was charged with stealing a backpack; a judge set bail at $3,000, an amount that his family could not afford. He spent three years on Rikers Island, where he was assaulted by other teenagers imprisoned on the island as well as jail officers. He also spent nearly two years in solitary confinement, where he was confined to a cell 23 hours a day. In 2013, the district attorney dismissed the charges against him and Browder was released. But his time at Rikers had left an indelible mark: In 2015, he committed suicide. He was 22 years old.

New York City announced a plan last year to relax bail requirements for “some low-level offenders.” And Washington, D.C., has abolished the practice of monetary bail altogether; about 85 percent of people are released while they await trial.

Had Baldwin been arrested in D.C., the pretrial process would have been very different. “The prosecutor would move for detention based on the seriousness of the charge,” Burdeen explained. That action would trigger a preventive detention hearing, which would occur within three days. During that hearing, Burdeen noted, the prosecutor must “show that there’s enough evidence to show that a crime was committed, that she most likely did it, and that no condition would protect public safety and ensure that she shows up to court other than detention.” In addition, the prosecutor would have to substantiate why he or she felt detention was appropriate.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys would present risk-mitigating factors, such as her job, her role as caregiver, her other family ties, and her lack of substance abuse. The defense could also present conditions that Baldwin was willing to undergo, such as wearing an electronic monitor or abiding by a curfew, if she were released pending trial.

“The judge then makes an on-the-record decision,” Burdeen explained, which can be appealed.

Some states, such as Kentucky and, most recently, New Jersey, have taken steps to reform their bail systems. But many others, including Connecticut and New York, still rely on monetary bail to determine who can be released pending trial.

Jails have 11 million admissions each year. There’s a lot still unknown about those who stay there, however. For instance, there is no aggregate data showing how many people sitting in jail across the country for failure to post bail are parents or primary caregivers. Similarly, there is no record of how many are domestic violence survivors whose charges stem from defending themselves. What is known is that, in 2014, 109,100 women (or 106 for every 100,000 women in the country) were sent to jail. What’s also known is the racial disparity of those behind bars. In 2014, although Black people comprised 13 percent of the country’s population, they made up 35 percent of the country’s jail population.

Baldwin said that, while in prison, she met Black, white, and Latina abuse survivors awaiting trial for similar acts of self-defense. “Some of their bonds were actually higher than mine,” she said. (She declined to give further details without the other women’s permission.)

“I Lost Three Years”

Baldwin’s legal ordeal is over. She has no criminal record. She no longer fears for her life or for her family’s safety. Even so, adjusting is hard. Less than two weeks after her acquittal, she renewed her driver’s license so that she could pick her son up from day care. That first day, she recalled, “His teachers knew who I was. They wanted to hug me.”

Jeffrey will turn 5 in October. Baldwin missed three years of growth milestones in her son’s life. “I missed him being potty-trained,” she said. “The first day of [day care]. His second, third, and fourth birthdays.” When she spoke with Rewire, she was still getting used to parenting a boy who is no longer a baby. “When he’s in the bathtub, I panic because I’m afraid he’ll drown,” she said. But Jeffrey no longer wants his mother washing him or even staying in the room while he bathes.

Baldwin even misses changing diapers.

The publicity around her case makes it difficult to go out. People recognize her and stare; the more courageous approach her. “They say, ‘Welcome home’ and ‘Congratulations,'” she said. “It feels good, but it also feels sad because I miss my son’s father. It hurts me because he’s not here anymore and I’m the cause of it. That’s not what I wanted.”

Baldwin plans to become an advocate to end domestic violenceand to help others in abusive relationships. Still, she noted, “I lost three years. I’m lucky he’s so young that he won’t remember. But I will remember.”

Commentary Politics

Young and Far From Apathetic on Abortion

Lauren Rankin & Dr. Sarp Aksel

It’s easy to say that millennials aren’t actively defending abortion rights. But it’s not true. In fact, the wide range of young people’s actions to preserve and advance access defies narrow definitions of "political activism."

This election season has brought mixed messages about youth activism. As Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have attempted to woo young voters, there’s also been pointed criticism that millennials’ supposed apathy has contributed to the erosion of, of all things, abortion rights.

The most notable example of such criticism was Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s January comments that she saw “a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided.”

Schultz’s perception does not mirror our reality (nor the reality of a presidential campaign in which few candidates have given abortion rights any meaningful airtime).

We are the younger generation in question. Together, we are a 28-year-old abortion provider and a 30-year-old abortion clinic escort. Every day, we enable access to abortion care, and we aren’t the only ones. Our friends and colleagues work tirelessly to not only further the abortion rights movement, but to lead it.

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According to a 2015 Gallup poll, a greater proportion of people ages 18 to 34 identify as pro-choice than does any other age group. But what the statistics don’t reveal is the myriad manifestations our generation’s activism takes. We are abortion providers, clinic escorts, fundraising champions, writers, documentarians, and storytellers.

As an OB-GYN resident in the Bronx, one of New York City’s most medically underserved boroughs, Sarp bears daily witness to the vital role abortion care plays in pregnant people’s health and lives. Too often, he sees the devastating consequences of barriers to care, whether in the form of insurance coverage, gestational age limits, financial hardships, or support system struggles. Despite New York state’s more liberal policies on abortion, access remains a challenge for many of its residents and his patients.

Providing abortion care is an awesome responsibility, one that brings with it tremendous emotional rewards. Sarp feels it when a patient gently squeezes his hand immediately after terminating a wanted yet anomalous pregnancy. He hears it in the thoughtful thank-you notes he receives from patients long gone from his office. He sees it in the joyful tears of a patient whose abortion he performed six months ago, but who just found out she is pregnant with a partner who does not physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse her. He clings to these moments as he cares for patients and when he marches in support of their rights to choose when, whether, and with whom to be pregnant.

Sarp is a product of Medical Students for Choice (MSFC), an international nonprofit with a mission to create the next generation of abortion providers and pro-choice physicians. Students involved with MSFC take a directly activist role, working to destigmatize abortion care among medical students and residents, and to persuade medical schools and residency programs to include abortion as a part of the reproductive health services curriculum.

For Lauren, enabling access means being a support system and sometimes a human shield between patients and hateful, shaming protesters. Her Saturday mornings are spent on the sidewalk, escorting patients and companions from the safety of their cars to the safety of the clinic. Young people comprise a plurality of volunteers at Lauren’s clinic, and they show up every weekend to support those who need it.

Lauren has held sobbing teenage rape victims as they were retraumatized by the violent screams of the men outside the clinic doors. She has watched as a companion screamed at a protester, “You don’t know what we’re going through,” as he walked his partner into the clinic to terminate a wanted pregnancy.

Escorting patients means being insulted and even endangered. Lauren has been berated, harassed, threatened, and sexually harassed by protesters while volunteering. But she has also been hugged, praised, thanked, and supported by grateful patients, their companions, and even passersby.

The misconception that young people are complacent belies not only our lived experiences, but the experiences of our colleagues.

Young people are at the forefront of work with the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) and state-based grassroots abortion funds. “Well over half of NNAF’s member organizations are proud to have young people in leadership positions as board members, staff, and hotline volunteers,” said NNAF Executive Director Yamani Hernandez in an email to Rewire. “Abortion funds are a welcoming place for the power and brilliance of young people because we recognize our movement is stronger when we support and amplify their leadership.”

We see young people bravely sharing their abortion stories to shatter stigma. Amanda Williams, the executive director of the Texas-based Lilith Fund, and NNAF Policy Representative Renee Bracey Sherman are among many telling their abortion stories to the world, challenging a culture of silence and shame around this basic health-care service.

And yes, young people are a visible presence at rallies for accessible abortion care. In March, they joined older activists to support abortion access at the Supreme Court during oral arguments for the Texas abortion case (and we were among them!).

On a daily basis, we see young people embodying the second-wave feminist ideal that “the personal is political” by defending abortion on the ground. Youth are making abortion accessible by doing the hands-on, personal work of funding abortions, providing abortions, escorting patients into clinics, and in some states, driving and housing patients.

This is a directly political act, particularly in states where abortion is increasingly inaccessible. Rallies and marches are good and important. But they don’t mean much to a low-income woman in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley when she has two weeks left to obtain an abortion in her state and nowhere within hundreds of miles to go. She needs money, transportation, an escort, and a provider. She needs actual, tangible help. And that is what young people are doing.

Not only that, but young people are making the abortion rights movement more inclusive and more effective. In many ways, the abortion rights frameworks and tactics of the 1960s and 1970s don’t hold water for the movement today; our social movements have changed, and so has technology. Young people are demanding that the right to a safe and legal abortion be contextualized along all other reproductive rights, including youth-led campaigns like #NoTeenShame, which seeks to destigmatize pregnant and parenting teens. Young people are raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for abortion care by engaging social and digital media, leveraging the support of our followers to make access a reality. And young people are pushing the movement to be more gender-inclusive, to reflect the fact that not everyone who has an abortion identifies as a cisgender woman.

Young people aren’t checked out. We are engaged. We are working to make abortion accessible in an increasingly hostile landscape. Given the opportunity and support, young people can be the difference makers. So the next time critics of millenials are looking to blame someone for the current state of abortion rights, don’t look at us. We have work to do.