Why do some teenage girls hide their pregnancies and harm their babies?

A teen is charged with capital murder after stabbing her newborn baby and placing it in a storage shed. It’s the latest story in a string of cases involving teens hiding their pregnancies and committing infanticide.

According to the Associated Press, 17-year-old Erica Gomez of El Paso, Texas, was arrested Friday after police were called to her home on Feb. 9 to conduct a welfare check and found the baby wrapped in a bathrobe inside a neighbor’s shed with wounds on the neck and body.

A teen mom who gave birth in secret stabbed her newborn to death. Why does this keep happening? (Photo: Getty Images)

Gomez had given birth at home 12 hours prior, stabbed the baby minutes later, and fell back asleep after abandoning the body. While Gomez was sleeping, her mother noticed she was bleeding and drove her to the hospital, where they were informed the teen had miscarried.

Police said the teen didn’t tell anyone about the crime because she was scared.

Gomez’s story isn’t unique. In 2017, a 19-year-old girl from Chicago was sentenced to four years of probation for throwing her newborn daughter out the window of her family home so her parents wouldn’t know she was pregnant. In 2014, a teen buried her newborn child alive after hiding her pregnancy from her family and was arrested after her father noticed his backyard soil was disrupted and discovered the infant.

And this week, a 21-year-old woman from New York was sentenced to 16 years in prison after giving birth at the age of 17, suffocating the baby, and placing him in a shopping bag. She was later arrested at Victoria’s Secret after employees detected a smell from her bag and found the baby’s remains. According to Vice, the woman insists that she didn’t know she was pregnant and the infant was stillborn.

According to data compiled by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focusing on youth and families, infant homicide accounts for 20 percent of injury-related deaths for infants (those under 1 year). Babies are most likely to be terminated by their mothers during their first week of life, with the risk highest on the day of birth.

Among the latter cases, 95 percent of these babies weren’t born in a hospital, and becoming a teenage mother is a risk factor.

Why these cases keep occurring is as complex as they are misunderstood. “There are legal, cultural, and environmental factors to why a pregnant teen might make this decision,” Pat Paluzzi, president and CEO of Healthy Teen Network, a national organization focused on teen pregnancy and prevention, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

“Our culture doesn’t provide easy access to contraception, adequate sex education, clinical services that are culturally appropriate, or abortion,” she says. “And if you take a young girl without this support, she may have lower expectations for her future.”

Back in the 1970s, pregnant teens were more or less shipped off to homes for unwed moms. “There was a societal feeling of, ‘You made your bed, now lie in it,’” notes Paluzzi. “Many of these girls dropped out of high school for good.” In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton signed the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program which provided assistance to pregnant women for a period of five years; however, “If a girl got pregnant at 15, that wouldn’t get her too far.”

To understand why a teen would commit infanticide is even more complicated.

“There are lots of unknowns in each case,” says Paluzzi. “Many teens wind up homeless after disclosing pregnancy to their families, so there’s a lot of fear there, coupled with the stress of enduring an entire pregnancy alone with no emotional or prenatal support. And there’s often a tremendous amount of denial at play.”

Added the trauma of laboring, often alone, and delivering one’s own child can leave some teens turning to drastic measures.

Steven Parker, a New York-based social worker with 40 years of experience working with pregnant teenagers, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that teens who commit infanticide are often victims of sexual abuse or rape, factors the law doesn’t take into consideration when handing down harsh sentences. “What these kids need most of all is empathy,” he says.

“We need to teach teens how pregnancy works and how to negotiate sex and contraception,” says Paluzzi. “Teens should be taught resilience and given mentors to show that a promising future is realistic.”

She adds, “We’re all products of our environment. There was a reason this teen in Texas did not feel safe disclosing her pregnancy.”

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