Amanda Van Scoyoc: Raising Them Right, 2007-2008

Amanda Van Scoyoc


I thought he was going to change. Through the four-and-a-half years that we’d been together he had always cheated on me. So he said, “I promise I’ll change. I’ll never play you cause I love my son, cause I want us to be a happy family.” So we moved to New York. We were there for about eight months. The fourth month he started to do the same thing.

Sindy, age 19, and her son, Rey

Photograph by Amanda van Scoyoc

Introduction by Amanda van Scoyoc
Raising Them Right: Young Motherhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts

In the United States, according to a 2005 study by the Guttmacher Institute, one out of every three girls becomes pregnant before the age of twenty, a statistic with significant repercussions for the young women who choose to have their babies and for society at large. Teen mothers in the United States are more likely to require government assistance, and their children tend to do poorly in school, are at greater risk of abuse and neglect, and are more likely to become teen parents themselves.

A national initiative launched in the mid 1990s caused a steady decline in the rate of teen births for over a decade. This decrease was attributed both to changes in sexual activity and increases in the use of contraceptives. Unfortunately, a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics for the year 2005–2006 revealed a 3 percent increase in teen pregnancies. Although the cause is unclear, this small but significant rise has reenergized the national debate on sex education in the schools.

In 1996 the federal government attached a provision, commonly referred to as Title V, to the welfare reform law that designated money specifically for abstinence until marriage programs. The provision created specific requirements for grant recipients including that sex education classes must teach that abstinence from sex outside of marriage is the only certain way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Due to this government-funded initiative, abstinence-only education has become increasingly prominent, with the federal government steering over one billion dollars into abstinence-only education since the program’s inception. Critics point to the dearth of information offered by these programs about contraceptives and ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases if teens do decide to become sexually active. At present, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, there is no strong evidence that any abstinence-only program successfully delays the initiation of sex or reduces the number of sexual partners.

As a Lewis Hine Fellow, I spent the 2007–2008 academic year working with the nonprofit Roca, which means “rock” in Spanish. Located in Chelsea, a primarily immigrant, low-income neighborhood in Boston, Roca serves Greater Boston communities by helping at-risk youth become self-sufficient, responsible citizens. With 42 percent of Chelsea youth living below the poverty line, a high-school drop out rate three times the state average, and a teen pregnancy rate twice the state average, Chelsea youth face extraordinary challenges on their path to adulthood.

During my fellowship, I was initially surprised by how many young mothers I encountered, not only at Roca but throughout Chelsea. As I became friends with a few of them through a Roca parenting group, I learned that despite my previous misconceptions, these women focused their lives around the well-being of their children and, being familiar with the cycle of poverty, actively sought out opportunities to secure a better future for them. I wanted to create a documentary project to get to know this side of young motherhood.

While we read about policies meant to address teenage pregnancy, we rarely see the faces or hear the voices of young women experiencing motherhood. How do they understand and cope with the challenges they encounter? How do they view their lives? I worked closely with a group of six teenage mothers from a Roca parenting group to design a documentary that would give them and twenty-four other young mothers from Roca an opportunity to tell their stories. We agreed to a process: I made a formal portrait in each mother's home and conducted a detailed interview; then, each mother took her own photographs; and finally, we collectively looked through all the photographs, and the mothers’ words, to create this exhibit.

Over the course of the project, I discovered a certain commonality in the young mother’s experiences that surprised me. Although most of the young mothers I spoke with had not planned to become pregnant, they found themselves in relationships and chose not to prevent their pregnancies. Despite their initial ambivalence towards motherhood, a majority of the women I interviewed considered the experience to be a positive turning point in their lives—an event that taught them to be responsible adults. Again and again they described the difficulties of growing up in a high-risk neighborhood, and the ways in which becoming a parent gave them a reason to get their lives on track.

When I asked one young mom what makes a parent, she responded, "Everything you do for your child, and the way you love them. It doesn't matter if you are old, young, middle-aged; a mom is a mom." The more time I spent with these young people, the more I saw that motherhood, despite its unique difficulties for young women, is filled with a satisfaction that transcends age, race, and class. These mothers, like all mothers, want more for their children. As Melissa explained when I asked her how she plans to raise her child, "I'm going to raise her right. I don't want her to turn out like me. I want her to be a better person."


Raising Them Right: Young Motherhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts
Rubenstein Hall, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy Building
West Campus, Duke University
February 27–August 1, 2009

Exhibition Opening
April 8, 2009, 6–8 p.m.
With an introduction to the work by Amanda van Scoyoc, followed by a panel discussion on teen pregnancy moderated by Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

Radio Broadcast
WUNC's "The State of Things" (Apri 8, 2009)
Amanda van Scoyoc; Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy; Jane Brown, a professor of communications at UNC; and Sydney Brunson, a member of the North Carolina Youth Leadership Council discuss "Tackling Teen Pregnancy" with host Frank Stasio

Amanda von Scoyoc

Amanda von Scoyoc

Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow 2007-2008

Amanda van Scoyoc graduated from University of Pennsylvania in 2005 with a B.A. in psychology and a minor in fine arts.