Federal Program Helping Teenage Moms

New level of aid may for first time convince these youths to delay more pregnancies

CHICAGO and four other US communities are taking a campaign to break the stubborn trend of welfare among teenage parents to the doorsteps of the troubled youths.

Under a new federally funded program, social workers in the five communities will make weekly home visits to provide teens with guidance in parenting, family planning, health care, and obtaining child support. The federal Health and Human Services Department will spend $3 million on the three-year experiment in Chicago, Portland, Ore., Dallas; Montgomery County, Ohio; and Baltimore.

The home-visitation program -- starting right when the new GOP-controlled Congress may cut the funding of such programs -- will target teens enrolled in the federal Job Opportunities and Basic Skills training program (JOBS), which aims to help teen parents on welfare become self-sufficient. Experts believe home visits will strengthen the mandatory JOBS program, especially by delaying subsequent pregnancies among teenage mothers -- something JOBS has failed to do.

''There are a lot of problems that you have to be in the home to identify,'' says Rebecca Maynard, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, who will evaluate the home-visitor program. ''Kids just don't come ask for help until they are desperate.''

The home-visit initiative is ''the next step'' in the comprehensive, mandatory public programs that have already helped thousands of the country's most disadvantaged teenage mothers break the vicious cycle of low achievement and long-term welfare dependency, Dr. Maynard says.

US teenager mothers -- 70 percent of whom are unmarried -- continue to give birth to about 500,000 babies a year. About half of unmarried teenage mothers receive government welfare during the year after their first child is born. Of those, one third remain dependent on welfare for at least 10 years.

A key factor in the programs' success -- in addition to being mandatory -- is that they go beyond basic education and job training to help teen mothers cope with personal problems ranging from homelessness and domestic violence to parenting and child care, studies suggest.

In Chicago and across the country, financial and other practical obstacles limit the number of eligible teens who are served by the comprehensive programs. Teens who are enrolled in the programs can benefit substantially.

The daughter of a teenage mother-turned-drug addict, Chicago native Dominique Lewis, had her own first child at the age of 15. Soon after, she dropped out of high school. Within three years she was homeless, on welfare, and cradling her second baby. She enrolled last March in a mandatory Illinois JOBS program and is now looking forward to earning her high-school equivalency diploma next month and eventually landing a job she likes.

''I'm working on my math,'' says the smiling 19-year-old at a state public-aid office in downtown Chicago.

Ms. Lewis was targeted for intensive help under a special component of the Illinois JOBS program because she dropped out of school, due to her severe hardships. The program helps teenage mothers like Lewis cope with domestic violence, sexual abuse, homelessness, and other serious problems that disrupt their lives and schooling.

''These teens' lives are so out of control that they need special services before they can get back into school,'' says Sally Polasek, who coordinates the Chicago-based program for the Illinois Department of Public Aid. Ms. Polasek estimates that severely troubled women like Lewis make up about half of the 3,600 teen welfare parents enrolled in the Chicago program.

Sonia Mercado, an unwed teenage mother of three, says she has benefited from the Chicago program's training in parenting and child development. Aiming to prevent the perpetuation of poverty into another generation, the program set up a child-care center at the same Chicago office where Ms. Mercado undergoes basic education and job training. The center allows social workers to pinpoint the teens' parenting problems and work with them to boost the developmental levels of their infants and toddlers.

Some 70 percent of the nearly 100 children cared for by the center over the past 20 months started out with significant developmental or behavioral problems, says Polasek.

These problems, which ranged from an apparent inability to walk, talk, or hear to behavior such as perpetual crying or biting, all cleared up within a few months, she says. Mercado says she used to routinely hit her children, aged from three to four months, ''to get their attention.'' After training by workers at the center, Mercado says she has learned to discipline her children without violence.

Home visits for Chicago teen mothers, expected to begin early next year under the new federal experiment, will offer social workers far greater insights into the problems and needs of young women like Mercado and Lewis, says Denise Simon, manager of Youth Services for the Illinois Department of Public Aid.

Nevertheless, practical obstacles to home visits remain, such as crime and the reluctance of teens to allow social workers to see how they live. This year, for example, rife drug- and gang-related shootings in Chicago's inner city forced the state to cancel a less-extensive home-visit effort for welfare teens, Ms. Simon says.

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