Despite bipartisan support, few states fund group homes for unwed teen moms
BY: David Crary
SOMERVILLE, Mass., Aug. 13 (AP)--President Clinton likes the idea. So do big-name Republicans. And so does Krystal Teixeira, unwed teen-age mother of two. She shudders to think where she'd be without a second-chance home.
Teixeira is lucky to be from Massachusetts, which runs the nation's most comprehensive network of group homes for low-income teen-age mothers and their children. Despite bipartisan praise from welfare reformers in Washington, these so-called second-chance homes have yet to catch on in most states.
Pilot programs have started in some states; others offer seed money aimed at raising private funds for the homes. But no state provides anywhere near the $5.3 million a year that Massachusetts spends for a 120-bed network of 21 group homes scattered from Cape Cod to the western city of Pittsfield.
"I don't care how much it costs. We owe it to them," says Lisa Kelly, who helped launch Massachusetts' Teen Living Program in 1995 and is now a consultant to the state Department of Social Services.
"These are girls who have been abused and neglected, and in many states they've just been written off because they've gotten pregnant," Kelly says. "It's astonishing that states aren't anteing up and covering their care."
Federal welfare reform legislation of 1996 targeted unwed teen-age mothers, cutting off benefits unless they lived with at least one parent. An exception was made for girls with no safe or suitable environment.
Teixeira initially sought refuge when she became fearful of the father of her 3-year-old son, Daymian. Now at ease in a working-class Boston suburb, she is studying local government at a community college while Daymian and 4-month-old Lee-Anna are in day care.
Like the other moms, she must contribute a third of her monthly $446 welfare check toward the home's expenses, and share cooking duties.
She strives to get along with the round-the-clock staff, though she chafes at some restrictions. The curfew is 7:30 p.m. on weeknights, 8:30 p.m. on weekends, and she may spend only two nights a month out of the home.
"You have to come to terms with the rules," Teixeira says. "They're not just going to let you run around and be crazy."
Overall, she's happy where she is, nurturing ambitions for law school and grateful her children are safe. What would her life be like without the home? ``I wouldn't like to think about it,'' she says.
The Massachusetts program costs more than $40,000 per bed per year, far more than what a teen-age mom with one or two children would receive on welfare. But the program's advocates say it is a "pay now or pay more later" situation, since children of teen-agers face more social peril than those with older moms.
"These are the highest-risk youth and highest-risk babies," says Bob Wentworth of the state social services agency. "If these mothers can learn to adequately parent their babies, and get an education so they can perform out in the community...it's a small amount of dollars for a great societal benefit."
Clinton requested funding for second-chance homes in his 2001 budget proposal, and Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush has promoted the concept in Texas.
The Texas program, launched last year at four sites with a $1.6 million budget, ranks second only to Massachusetts in funding. It offers lodging, if needed, but focuses mostly on nonresidential services such parenting classes and career counseling.
New Mexico, Rhode Island and Nevada also have statewide programs. About a dozen other states have local programs or are considering statewide initiatives.
Paula Van Straten, on a Wisconsin task force studying the issue, says teen-age mothers are a group easily overlooked by politicians.
"This is a very silent population," says Van Straten, who helps provide prenatal care for pregnant teens in Green Bay. "They don't cause trouble; they fall through the cracks very quietly."
One of the leading advocates of second-chance homes is Kate Sylvester, director of the nonprofit Social Policy Action Network in Washington. Her group supplies research to state policy makers and is helping Georgia set up group homes.
Skeptics need to understand the benefits won't come overnight, says Sylvester.
"You're not going to suddenly turn around the life of a teen-age mother. She's not going to become a teen soccer mom," she says. "The real benefit is for her child. It's common sense that when a young mother's baby gets fed regularly, and she has somebody to hand the baby off to when she's tired or angry, these little kids will thrive."
The national teen pregnancy rate has been dropping in recent years, but there are still roughly 200,000 girls under 18 giving birth each year, most of them unmarried. Many of these young mothers live with their parents; others lack that option.
"Some come from homes where there's drug use, or violence, or where the older man who made them pregnant is living," says Sylvester. "Sometimes it's simply overcrowding - mothers taking home fragile, underweight infants and having to sleep on the couch with them."
Pria Ruffen, 18-year-old mother of a 2-year-old son, left the home of her adoptive mother almost a year ago and had been homeless when she entered a group home in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood.
Ruffen plans to study for a high-school equivalency diploma and eventually become a nurse. Without the group home, she says, "I'd be out on the street with my son, like the people downtown who sleep on the benches and have signs saying, 'I need money.'"
Sunita Iyer, a counselor at the Roxbury home, stresses pregnancy prevention and parenting skills in her work with Ruffen and seven other young mothers. She tries to teach a positive approach to child discipline.
"A lot of it is just having patience," Iyer says. "We ask, 'Are you going to throw tantrums too, or be a model for them?'"
"To think five, 10, 20 years down the road for the sake of their children--that's really a challenge for a teen-ager. No one has ever talked to them that way before."
Supportive homes for unwed mothers aren't a new concept; for decades, charity-run maternity homes have provided a refuge for young women about to bear children society labeled illegitimate.
With the moral stigma of single parenthood lessened, and new funds available to states because of welfare cutbacks, advocacy groups believe state-supported group homes are the best bet for the future.
"In private homes, just getting the mothers fed and off to school was an enormous burden," Sylvester says. "When you have a state network, you get connected to food stamps, Medicaid, jobs programs, all kinds of things the homes may not have been aware of. The goal is self-sufficiency and breaking the cycle."
Sylvester is optimistic that more states will create second-chance homes, but acknowledges it would help to have convincing proof of the social benefits.
"We have to be honest. We don't know about long-term outcomes," she says. "You can't live on anecdotes."
Sylvester would like future group homes to campaign for community support, encouraging neighbors to invite young mothers for dinner or offer part-time jobs.
"This isn't a just another government program getting money thrown at it," she says. "It's a model for communities to embrace these girls who are struggling mightily to be good parents."