Somerset County, Maine

Somerset County in central Maine is the 3rd largest county in the state with a population (2010) of just over 52,000.  It is very rural with only 14 people per square mile, no cities, and a few small towns and villages.

Somerset County has the second largest poverty rate in the state with 19.3% living below the federal poverty rate (2010 data).   These families include more than 20% of the county’s children and 59% of county students are eligible for free or reduced lunch (2011 data).

Transportation and distance are major barriers to people obtaining services in Somerset County. It takes two hours on winding, two lane roads to go from Skowhegan, the county seat and largest town, to the most northern village, Jackman, near the Canadian border.

Teen pregnancy rates in Somerset County are high compared to the state as a whole, and have been for many years. For girls 18 – 19, Somerset County has the 2nd highest pregnancy rate in Maine.  These high rates are correlated strongly with poverty.  Two aspects of this relationship are that teens from poor families and communities often do not have positive aspirations for future education and work, and that families are often in an accepted pattern of generations of teen parenting.

About the Somerset County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program

The goals of the Somerset County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program are to reduce the rate of teen pregnancy in Somerset County and to delay the age of first sexual behavior.

Our vision is that each teen will have the information he or she need to make healthy decisions about sex and relationships, as well as the support and guidance of a caring adult.

The program started in 2005 and was funded for its first three years by the Family Planning Association of Maine.  Skowhegan, the county’s largest town (8,900), showed teen pregnancy rates more than twice the state average and the Family Planning Association asked us to find out why.

During the first two years of the program, we explored through focus groups, attitudes towards teen pregnancy among teens, parents, and business and community leaders.   Our findings were:

  • We found a high degree of acceptance of teen pregnancy and parenting among all these groups.
  • Teens in Skowhegan told us that teen pregnancy “just happened.”  Teens clearly indicated that they were not intentionally making decisions about sexual behavior in general or about using condoms and birth control.
  • Teens said that unprotected sex often occurred when they were using alcohol or other drugs.
  •  Teens often recounted using verbal or physical violence in relationships.  They generally showed little understanding of how to resolve conflicts in other ways.
  • Teens said they didn’t get enough sex education in school and weren’t talking to their parents, although they wanted to.  They said sex education should begin even earlier than middle school (7th – 8th grade) and should continue throughout high school, covering different topics as teens’ experiences change. (Sexuality education in Maine high schools is usually provided in health classes which most students take as an elective in ninth grade.  Middle school sex education is primarily focused on biological changes during puberty).
  • Teens said they wanted to learn more about the emotional consequences of sexual behavior and about relationships.

Our strategies were developed in response to what we learned from the focus groups. We quickly expanded the program to serve all of Somerset County.

With respect to business and communities leaders, we worked to raise awareness through public discussions at community meetings and through presentations to local town councils, service agencies, civic groups and churches.  We also routinely asked local businesses for contributions to our program and publicized their generosity in press releases.  In this way, we feel that we have helped promote the discussion of teen pregnancy and parenting and collaboration on reducing teen pregnancy rates.

We developed classes and materials for parents, school staff and health and counseling professionals to encourage and empower them to guide teens. We gave these classes in health clinics, through school staff trainings, to physicians at the local hospital and staff of counseling agencies, to parent groups in churches, and through the Adult Education department in the county’s largest high school.

We developed curricula for high school students and offered these classes as guest teachers in local high schools.

Funding for the program came from businesses including local banks, SAPPI — a local paper mill, and numerous restaurants and grocery stores who contributed food for community meetings and some of the teen classes.  Skowhegan Rotary Club supported our program financially for many years. The Greater Somerset Public Health Collaborative supported our work financially and as a collaborator.

Maine charitable and business foundations and individual donors supported development of curricula, teaching and community awareness work.  Major contributors  included the Maine Community Foundation, the Hudson Foundation, the Family Planning Association of Maine, the Rite Aid Foundation, and Ronald McDonald Charities of Maine.  The Maine Community Foundation and the Hudson Foundation provided the funds to develop this web site.

Sponsorship for the program has been provided by Somerset County Association of Resource Providers.  This group of over 100 health and social service providers in Somerset County is a key organization in our area for identifying gaps in service, facilitating the creation of new services, and enhancing the effectiveness of services for residents of all ages.