As CEO of Fact Forward in Columbia, S.C., Beth De Santis is continuing a long career helping young people make informed choices when it comes to reproductive health.
Beth worked at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for 16 years, beginning as a women’s health nurse practitioner providing clinical reproductive health care and ending as director of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. In 2016, she accepted the opportunity to lead the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, now rebranded as Fact Forward.
“This job gave me an opportunity to come back to what I’ve always been focused on, which is empowering young people to make the right decisions at the right time so their future is brighter,” she says.
Funding from The Duke Endowment has helped Fact Forward build capacity and host a learning collaborative in which 30 clinics focused on building teen-friendly practices. The Endowment has also supported the organization’s work in Darlington County, S.C., helping local leaders develop a community approach for preventing teen pregnancy.
We caught up with Beth for Let’s Talk Month, a national public education campaign in October that encourages open communication between young people and trusted adults about love, sexual health and relationships.
“Even I get uncomfortable talking about this with my sons,” Beth says. “But the most common misunderstanding is that if I bury my head in the sand, my teenagers won’t get involved in risky behavior. So much of this is about having systems in place that will enable our young people to make educated decisions.”
Here’s more from the interview.
Over the past 25 years, South Carolina has seen a 70 percent drop in teen pregnancy rates. You have much to celebrate, right?
Yes, that’s a huge success – but it’s not victory. South Carolina, like most other states, has experienced a precipitous decline in teen pregnancy since the early 1990s, but far too many teens remain uninformed about reproductive health. We still have the nation’s 16th highest teen birth rate – and in 2017, we still had more than 3,400 teens giving birth.
We’re also facing rising STI rates. In 2017, South Carolina ranked 4th highest in the country for gonorrhea and 5th highest for infection rates of Chlamydia among all ages.
We still have challenges in the reproductive health arena, which is one of the reasons for our new name.
Tell us about the rebranding. Why did you drop “SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy”?
We do a lot more than just preventing teen pregnancy, and we have had a broader focus on reproductive health for years. Our work addresses a wide range of audiences – pre-teens and young adults, males and females – and we work to prevent not just unintended pregnancies, but also STIs.
Combined with our tagline, Advancing Reproductive Health, Fact Forward really captures how we talk about what we want to do for young people. We want to arm them with the best facts and information to help them make good decisions to move forward in their life.
What does ‘reproductive health’ mean here?
Reproductive health for adolescents is about preventing pregnancy, preventing the spread of STIs, and promoting the HPV vaccine to protect against several types of cancer. HPV vaccination rates in our state are improving, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be.
How do you describe what Fact Forward does?
First, we educate. We work with partners to educate teens on how to make better choices, delay sexual activity, use contraception and prevent repeat births. We urge schools to increase access to comprehensive, medically-accurate reproductive health education. We offer training and technical assistance to help providers establish teen-friendly practices and health services.
Second, we inform the media, youth-serving professionals and community members through events that bring people together, such as a recent drop-in at our offices during Let’s Talk Month. We used the event to share the latest about South Carolina’s teen birth data and resources for parents. On Oct. 25-26 in Myrtle Beach, we’re hosting the 6th annual Contraceptive Leadership Summit for health care leaders to share best practices and innovations related to contraceptive needs of adolescents and young adults. People can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 703-771-7700 to register.
Third, we conduct research and analyze data to improve programs and create actionable reports. And fourth, we provide annual funding to local communities and organizations that support the implementation of evidence-based reproductive health education.
Your career has been focused on empowering young people to develop their full potential. How does pregnancy prevention fit into that?
Many years ago, I was a labor and delivery nurse working a night shift when one of my patients was a 14-year-old in labor. The girl’s mother – just a young woman herself – was at her daughter’s beside showing support, which was good. But when the young father arrived, he and the girl’s mother had an altercation. He wanted to be there for his girlfriend, but the mother was angry at him for what had happened to her daughter. He ended up taking out a gun.
Security came and he was arrested. Afterward, I kept thinking that if those young people had been empowered to make better decisions, their story could have been much different. Now she’s taking care of a baby when she’s still a baby. And the young man is in jail.
I still get chills thinking about that night.
You’re the mother of two young sons. What’s your message for adolescents like them?
They are valued and loved. They will be our leaders and we believe in them. I want to help them have what they need to move forward in a positive direction.
Learn More About Our Focus
With research consistently revealing the negative outcomes associated with early childbearing, The Duke Endowment has supported three strategies focused on teen pregnancy prevention:
• Building capacity of select statewide providers to promote prevention efforts
• Creating access to the most reliable forms of contraceptives for older teens
• Supporting integration of effective practices into schools and community organizations.
In Darlington County, S.C., funding has helped local leaders establish a comprehensive, community-wide teen pregnancy prevention initiative. Darlington County First Steps, the lead local agency, is a partner with Fact Forward in the work. The county public school system, local clinics and hospitals, and community organizations are participating.
The goal is to implement a multi-pronged approach to combat teen pregnancy – and the project is showing promise.
Recent outcomes include:
• 2,901 Darlington County School District students received an evidence-based program.
• 773 of teens ages 15-19 accessed reproductive health services.
• 157 of those teens received a Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs)
• 438 received a moderately effective method
• 42 community events held to increase awareness, including youth leadership events and health fairs
Tamika D. Williams
Associate Director, Child Care