Young Parents Project Helps Teen Moms Break the Risk CyclePublished Monday, August 22, 2011
Jill Little’s cell phone rang in the dark. She roused herself and glanced at the time: 4:15 a.m. Jill and other team members of the Young Parents Project have an agreement to turn off their phones at 9 p.m.
But then Jill saw the number that flashed on her screen. It was a call from one of the teens in her program, a girl who was due to birth her first child. Jill reached for the phone.
“Call 911 and have them send an ambulance to take you to the hospital,” Jill advised the teen. A few minutes later the phone rang again.
“She was scared, and I realized I could help her. I’m site coordinator and a social worker, but most of all ‘transportation specialist,’ Jill laughs during a talk in her office on the first floor of the Juvenile Justice Center in NW Miami. Lockers against the wall are stacked with books – “Baby Basics,” “Goodnight Moon,” “Buenas Noches Gorila” – infant toys, sippy cups, wipes and basic medical supplies. Infant car seats are stacked in the corner.
“We help our girls navigate a very complex system and getting them where they need to be – doctor appointments, court hearings, substance abuse and anger management classes – is always a problem,” she says.
The Young Parents Project, funded by The Children’s Trust, the FSU Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy and others, currently supports 21 young mothers and their infants, helping them break the cycle of trauma, abuse and neglect that surrounds them. Jill was hired in 2005 to help launch the Miami project.
She is the winner of The Children’s Trust’s 2011 Excellence in Direct Service to Children and Families Award and will be honored at the Champion’s for Children Ceremony in November.
Young Parents, based on Yale University’s “Minding the Baby” model in New Haven, CT, has been customized for Miami’s diverse population. Pregnant and parenting teens are referred by public defenders, probation officers, judges and/or the courts, but participation is voluntary. The relationship-based intervention integrates mental health, nursing and social work support through intensive home visitation. Jill and other team members serve as liaisons with the court and advocates for the girls and their infants.
Eighty percent of the girls in the program have been arrested from 1-7 times, some more. The average age at the time of arrest: 14. Nearly half are not in school; three-fourths are not at grade level. A third has no health care provider. Nearly half are pregnant at the time they enter, a fourth have no prenatal care. Average age is 16, but some new moms are as young as 12.
National statistics show that 60-70 percent of teen moms have been abused.
“It’s even higher than that in our program,” Jill says. “Many of the girls have never disclosed that they were abused – or they weren’t believed. They don’t’ know how to be protective of their child when no one ever protected them.”
Jill and others visit the young women once a week during their first year in the program, then biweekly in the second year or once their children are a year old. A nurse on the team attends to the health and medical needs of mother and child – 95 percent of the babies are immunized. Certified child care centers are located and the mothers are reenrolled in high school or at Continuing Opportunities for Purposeful Education (COPE) centers.
Reducing recidivism is a primary goal of the project. For the first three years, Young Parents had a crystal clear slate, and over the six years and hundreds of young women who have participated, only two have been rearrested.
Raised in East Hartland, a one-gas station town in Connecticut, Jill grew up with brothers, a half-sister and step siblings. The high school where she excelled in sports was a half hour away. At St. Joseph College, she played volleyball, basketball and softball and even rugby – “that sport is one of the craziest things I’ve done,” she says, laughing. She coached for a while and then at 24, “set her sights on bigger things.”
A teen who was about to enter the program was fatally shot recently. As tragic as the death was, Jill was frustrated, as she often is, by stories she reads in the newspaper and by the judgments that people make from afar.
Jill Little, winner of The Children’s Trust’s 2011 Excellence in Direct Service to Children and Families Award
Written by Michael R. Malone