Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rock On... "The Lost Children of Rockdale County"

Fifteen years ago, a syphilis outbreak among middle and high schoolers in Conyers, Georgia uncovered a secret web of sex, drugs, and teenaged angst few adults knew about. The naivety of this situation by the parents, that it could never happen in a small town like Conyers, turned a blind eye to their own teenagers who inexplicably put each other's lives at stake. In so doing, the chasm between proper parenting and impressionable youth was divided even further, thus faulting both sides to this commonplace story.

The outbreak initially went unnoticed because it happened in the months before the 1996 Summer Olympics was to be held in Atlanta, twenty five miles east of Conyers. As a matter of fact, Conyers was the designated host site for equestrian and mountain biking events in that year's Olympiad. So much local talk was spent on building a new horse park for the occasion, little – if any – attention was paid to this underground epidemic.

The first reports of syphilis came in the spring of 1996, and they were granted minimal coverage in the media. According to one of the earliest stories on this phenomenon, upwards of 20 cases of syphilis were contracted by teenagers in Conyers and in surrounding Rockdale County between October 1995 and March 1996. Later reports found that 17 teenagers tested positive for syphilis, and over 200 were treated for exposure to syphilis. Shocking numbers, yes, but they were vastly overlooked by those in the community.

It wasn't until October 1999 that this case was blown wide open. That was when PBS aired a 90-minute documentary on the events before, during, and after the syphilis outbreak called The Lost Children of Rockdale County. Reviews lauded the documentary as a "shocking," "disturbing," "deeply provocative," and "haunting" piece on the two-faced lives parents and their teenaged offspring share.

As it turned out, the girls who got syphilis were very promiscuous. They shared multiple male sex partners with no regard for monogamy, even though some of them had pledged to stay pure until marriage. In other instances, they had lesbian sex with each other, which only assured that syphilis would continue to spread. The only kind of sex that never occurred was guy-on-guy sex because, as a friend of one of the teenagers primarily connected to the outbreak said, it "ain't cool."

What's even more harrowing was the teenager's overall deviant disposition. In addition to the sex, they stayed out past curfew, solicited in different parts of town, smoked, drank, and took other forms of illegal drugs. There was nothing to do in Conyers, apparently, so they found other ways to have fun. Theirs was a fantasy with no regard for reality. And it's this dichotomy that puts both parents and the teenagers in a negative light.

On the one hand, the parents of these teenagers failed to live up to their expectations. I don't advocate that teenagers should have zero privacy, but parents should know where their children are at all time, especially teenagers. One father who was interviewed all but commended the teen's behavior, saying that the teenaged years is the appropriate time to "sow their oats" so they won't feel compelled to do it again in the future. But if they continue to fool around behind their parent's backs and not get caught, they're not going to give up their pursuits when they do grow up. They'll just become more skilled at how to get away with murder (figuratively speaking).

Another parent interviewed was a divorced working mom who put her career over her teenaged daughter. While the mom was out earning money they didn't really need (they lived comfortably in an affluent neighborhood), her daughter lost her virginity, contracted syphilis, and started drinking alcohol and abusing drugs.

It makes me curious if parents are even interested in properly raising their kids through the teenaged years. I don't know why they've suddenly become passive, but it’s a disturbing trend to see older individuals with more wisdom and experience get pushed around by the younger generation, especially if they're their own children.

However, the teenagers are as much to blame because they never considered the consequences of their actions. Some of the teenaged guys who found out they got syphilis high-fived each other at the clinic where they were tested, as if getting infected with an STD is cool. The girls, meanwhile, sounded accomplished about having several, if not dozens, of sexual partners to spread themselves around. To them, group sex was fun and pleasurable. Drinking alcohol until they passed out made them feel mature. Smoking and doing hard drugs was en vogue. Save a pregnancy, which no girl interviewed appeared to have experienced, anything and everything was fair game.

This kind of indifferent behavior is proof that contemporary teens carry a sense of invincibility about themselves and each other, and that nothing bad will ever happen to them. I was that way once upon a time, too, but I knew better not to engage in high-risk activities with my whole life ahead of me. Of all, the most amazing thing about their hidden rendezvous was in the timing. Most of their illicit activity took place from 3-7 p.m. and after midnight, because that was when their parents weren’t around. How no other adult figures caught on to their sneaking around is beyond me. The teen years ought to be an exhilarating time for change and decision making, but if they occur behind closed doors, nothing good ever happens.

This story, as tragic as it could've been, is a textbook example of what happens when people, especially teenagers, are given too much free time, too many open resources, and little to no supervision. The parents, at least those interviewed, were more concerned about giving their offspring material goods that break down instead of moral guidelines that stand the test of time. As one mother said, she "literally gave up" on raising her children with a sense of direction. What a shame.

Meanwhile, those teens affected by the syphilis outbreak are in their late 20s to early 30s today. Lord only knows if they've wised up, but I fear most of them haven't changed their behavior because it's the only way they know how to act. If some of them are parents right now, I hope their children turn out to be better than them when they were younger.

But worst of all is that cases like the one in and around Conyers way back when are happening right now under everyone's noses. It's not a matter of if, but when the discovery is made. As such, it really should come as no surprise that a group of teenagers would cheat death in the most risky and intimate of situations. The only reason anyone would react otherwise is because they failed to see their kids as those caught in the same web years ago, those lost children of Rockdale County.

For the complete transcript of the broadcast this post was based on, click here.


  1. Actions have consequences. Agreed fully that the $ will not ever equal the parenting that should have occurred.

    Thank you for your post.

  2. Hello from NYC. I'm keeping the above text, as, eventually, I'll find some journalism about this case. This case was loosely adapted into a script for a Lifetime movie called She's Too Young which I recently saw.

  3. A small minority contracted a treatable STD disease and there were no pregnancies. Labelling it "life threatening" is part of the reason teens turn off - they know bullshit when they hear it. If adults aren't going to be honest and down to earth about these things, they will do their own "research".

  4. For me, it became life threatening because I failed to get tested and showed no systems. In 2016 I was diagnosed with Nuro Syphilis and spent almost an entire month in intensive treatment. It was in my spine. I was explained that it had made it way to my brain and was killing me. I wish I would have had the adults around to scare me into getting tested. It would have save me a ton of trouble .