The case of the 12-year-old mother

Jenny Teague's story is this week's cause for public outrage, worry and despair. But, after all the breastbeating, how will life really be for her? By Jojo Moyes
The news that Jenny Teague, 12-year-old mother of a three-month- old daughter, Sasha, is being represented by PR supremo Max Clifford somehow came as little surprise. If a tale of sexual intrigue or wayward behaviour surfaces "exclusively" in a Sunday tabloid newspaper, there is a better- than-average chance that it carries the prints of Mr Clifford's fingers. And the reaction from other newspapers to his involvement has been equally unsurprising. When he was reported to have fixed up media coverage that would pay the Teague family pounds 16,000, the Daily Mail was not slow to react: "Only in our age can a girl of 12 be rewarded for being pregnant," it raged.

There is no doubt that the circumstances of Jenny Teague's motherhood are a cause for sorrow, even despair. She became pregnant after a night of "experimenting" with a 13-year-old boyfriend, and did not realise she would have a baby until she was eight months pregnant, which says little for the sex education available to her at home or at school. But, just as the money brokered by Max Clifford may make her life a little easier, so there may be other advantages to Jenny Teague in being 12 rather than 15 or 16.

As a child of 12, she is likely to receive far more support from her family than she would had she given birth at 16. Alison Hadley of Brook Advisory Centres says that research done with teenage mothers shows that whether or not they succeed as a parent depends enormously on the help they get from their families. "If they get family support, then often the outcome will be pretty favourable. It allows the young mother to go back to education and get some qualifications which will allow her to make the next steps.

"At 12 the family support is going to be greater than perhaps it would be at 15 or 16, when they assume she can do more for herself. The fact that the birth was completely unexpected obviously means there's a shock element which may have rallied the family around."

The Teague family, although evidently stunned, have promised to look after their daughter - and their unexpected granddaughter, Sasha - despite their own reliance on benefits (Jenny's father is unemployed). Jenny is eligible for only pounds 11.05 a week in child benefit, and Ms Hadley points out that her parents are probably still claiming child benefit for Jenny herself. "She's going to be completely dependent on them," she says. Jenny's boyfriend is no longer in contact with her. His parents were yesterday demanding a blood test to prove that the baby was his.

Even if the young parents were willing, at their ages it would be unreasonable to expect them to face fully the responsibility for what has happened. "It's an enormous thing Jenny's gone through, but at that age the full responsibility is unlikely to fall on her," says Ms Hadley. "Her mother may now be called upon to be a mother again. She may not have been counting on it, but needs must."

There are other factors in such an under-age pregnancy. Unlike the Turkish "husband" of Sarah Cook, who was charged with her statutory rape shortly before she gave birth at the age of 14 last year, Jenny Teague is unlikely to find herself in court.

"Under the age of 13 it is a statutory offence, whereas between 13 and 16 there are mitigating factors that can be brought in," says Ms Hadley. "But if no one is pushing for a prosecution and clearly it's a peer relationship that went sadly wrong, it's extremely rare that anything would happen."

Research conducted by the Rowntree Trust found that low educational attainment and poverty were powerful factors associated with becoming a young parent. Girls who have had to become young teenage mothers talk sadly of how they've "missed out on their childhoods" and had to grow up unnaturally fast.

Carole Reilly, deputy co-ordinator of Great Yarmouth's GFS Platform group for young mothers, the biggest full-time such group in the country, says that this can have other consequences, especially in the very young. "They don't have a childhood if they're becoming sexually active. This can lead to a slightly arrested development," she says.

The biggest problem faced by young mothers - and by the state in dealing with them - is, she says, that "they never catch up": "In this country young mothers never do, because there's no child care."

A survey of 98 local education authorities by Bristol University found that only a third of schoolgirl mothers stay on at school. In March, magistrates gave their backing to a schoolgirl mother who has skipped lessons for the past 18 months to look after her son. Kelly Turner was 13 when she fell pregnant and last attended lessons two months before the boy, Jake, was born.

Her mother, 33-year-old Mandy Turner, was cleared of failing to send her back to Middlefield School in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, after the birth. The Turner family successfully claimed that they had been offered no adequate long-term care for Jake, leaving his mother with no alternative but to stay at home to look after him.

While girls are usually allowed to stay at school when they become pregnant, most opt for tuition at home for five hours a week.

Here, Jenny Teague may be luckier than her older peers, too. As an under- 16, according to Ms Reilly, she is entitled to home tuition. The Great Yarmouth group runs its own education programme for over 16-year-olds, to try to help them gain some qualifications in the face of a lack of statutory provision.

For the time being, Jenny Teague's future looks relatively bright. She can continue her education, stay within the bosom of her family and make extra money from interviews - until the media tires of her. Or indeed, until a younger mother takes her place.

According to experts, we may see an increase in the number under-14 pregnancies; the highest figure in a year is 406, recorded in 1994. "The age of consent has always been around two years after menstruation," says Carole Reilly. "But now we're looking at girls who menstruate at 11 or 12. That seems to bring on sexual activity.

"There are the constant sexual references, and the really explicit nature of teenage magazines. We used to read Jackie - they're reading how to give a blowjob. And then there are the restrictions placed upon teachers trying to teach proper sex education."

Jenny Teague's parents, who did not explain the facts of life to her themselves, were this week placing the blame firmly on inadequate school- based sex education. Her mother said: "She hasn't even done kissing before. The problem is all kids experiment. You can't stop them. I was going to talk to her about sex when her periods started properly, but they hadn't."

According to Alison Hadley, the very youngest are also the least likely to ask for help. Jenny Teague said she was "really really shocked" when her mother told her she was pregnant - despite being eight months into the pregnancy. "If people are starting to have sex at a very young age, such as 11, they don't usually understand what they are doing and would be extremely nervous about asking for contraceptive advice. They're also really, really worried about confidentiality," says Ms Hadley. "And at that age they won't admit what it is that they're doing to themselves, let alone anyone else".