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May 5, 2008

Teen Mother Beats the Odds with Help from Local Agency

When Janira* was 15 years old, she became pregnant. Her mother learned of the pregnancy and soon left the state, leaving her young daughter entirely alone. Janira had no family in the New Haven area and now she had no home, no job, no savings, no resources and she was only a freshman in high school.

Left with no other options, Janira moved in with her boyfriend and his family and soon gave birth to a healthy baby boy. But she started to have frequent arguments with her boyfriend’s sister and when the arguments progressed into serious verbal fights, Janira’s boyfriend’s mother told Janira and her son to leave the house.

As the fifteen-year-old mother of a newborn, Janira was placed into a homeless shelter by
The Connecticut Department of Social Services. But the shelter was designed for adults who were homeless and Janira found it hard to adjust to shelter rules. Soon, she and her son were kicked out.

The Department of Children and Families (DCF) then placed Janira and her son in a foster home. This situation could have worked but Janira soon realized that the foster mother was controlling and mean. She would lock the kitchen cabinets and the freezer that held food.

When the foster mother hit Janira’s son with a curtain rod, Janira asked to be removed from the foster home. DCF agreed and placed Janira and her son into their own supervised apartment.

But the trouble still wasn’t over. Janira’s boyfriend came to her apartment one night and discharged a handgun into the wall. She was kicked out and was again homeless.

The Department of Social Services then placed Janira and her son in a homeless shelter 45 minutes from New Haven. Again she found that most of the residents were adults and by this time, Janira was still only 18 years old. After one long month at the shelter, DCF again agreed to place Janira and her son into their own supervised apartment.

Janira’s story is not an unusual one. In New Haven high schools last year, over 200 teenage women became mothers. Often when a woman this age faces a pregnancy, her hopes of finishing high school are slim. She might be forced to leave school because she can’t afford child care, because her family no longer supports her, or because she is simply overwhelmed. Studies such as Community Compass [http://www.uwgnh.org/compass/index.cfm] show that teen pregnancy and parenting threatens the development of teen parents as well as their children. Teen moms are less likely to find adequate prenatal care and are less likely to have the financial and social resources needed for healthy child development.

Considering all of those factors, this could have been the beginning of a long, sad, downward spiral into life-long homelessness and poverty for Janira and her son. But during her homelessness and many moves, the one stable factor in Janira and her son’s life was the Elizabeth Celotto Child Care Center at Wilbur Cross High School, part of Student Parenting and Family Services [http://www.uwgnh.org/commimpact/studentparenting.cfm], a United Way supported agency.

The day care there enabled Janira to make it to school every day. She brought her son with her and left him in the day care, confident that he was getting high quality care while she focused on trying to graduate from high school. And despite being a poor, often homeless young mother, Janira managed to focus and do well in school. Because of her own determination and the flexibility and security provided by the child care, she was able to maintain good grades.

Lorraine DeLuz, Program Director at Student Parenting and Family Services, says “Initially, Janira was a very angry young woman. She didn’t trust adults and she would explode when asked simple questions about simple things like immunization records for her son. But we stuck by her.”

Janira soon began to see that these adults were here to help her, not hurt her. The staff at the day care followed through on their commitments, unlike the other adults in Janira’s life, and she soon saw that they cared deeply about her young family. This kind of help has meant the difference for many young women in the Greater New Haven area. The Elizabeth Celotto Day Care Center helped 30 young women stay in school last year. Lorraine DeLuz says, “We had a one hundred percent graduation rate last year. Sixteen teens graduated. Fifty percent graduated from another school that did not have the same support services.”

Janira was one of those who did graduate. And at the end of high school, she applied to a private university and was accepted with a scholarship. She attended the university, majoring in English and Legal Studies, and graduated in 2003. She will soon start working on a graduate degree in social work.

Looking back, Janira recalls, “It was hard but I just couldn’t give up,” she said. “When you’re fifteen you think differently. But I’m grateful for all the help now.” When asked why she wants to go into social work, she responded, “Because the teenagers need it. Sometimes you need that push.” She still visits the daycare center at Wilbur Cross High School and when she does, she recalls her earlier self, saying “Who was that person? That wasn’t me.”

*name changed

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