Pregnancy is one of the leading causes of high school drop-outs, and keeping the girls in school until graduation is one objective of the program. McAlister School, with four sites, and Thomas Riley, with three sites, offer pregnant girls a comfortable, non-threatening environment during their pregnancies.
At these schools for pregnant teen-age minors, students continue with basic academic courses leading to graduation but they receive, too, parenting classes and a special physical fitness course geared to preparing girls for labor, delivery and postnatal recovery. (Lowbirth-weight rates, highest in women under 20, are directly linked to maternal health and nutrition.) As an adjunct to the school curriculum, El Nido provides both one-on-one and group counseling.
Frequently, babies born to teen-age mothers still in school are an additional mouth to feed in a family already struggling for economic survival. And, inevitably, the baby's arrival creates new tensions and conflicts within the family unit. El Nido research has found these teen parents often "woefully lacking" in basic child-care skill and with no realistic view of the demands of parenting.
El Nido, founded 60 years ago, has conducted a counseling program for pregnant teen-agers since 1979 but, with its current state grant, and United Way funding, it is able to coordinate all of the health, counseling and social services available to teens both during pregnancy and after their babies are born. These include vocational counseling, infant day care and transportation to services.
Learning the System
There is a full range of services available, free, in the community, said Fritzie Davis, El Nido's executive director, "if you know how to get them." But most teen-agers do not know how to maneuver through the systems.
Officially, the program is called the Adolescent Family Life Project, but around El Nido the staff calls it simply Good Start.
The new grant will enable El Nido to serve about 650 teen-age clients, and has made it possible to add six case managers and two community organizing specialists to work with teen fathers and do considerable outreach in clients' homes, working with the entire family to help build support.
Preparing the adolescent mothers and fathers for reality is the bottom line. Said Davis of the girls, "Their expectations are that they're going to have these dolls they're going to be able to love and these dolls are going to love them. It doesn't work out that way for very long."
"Many times the fathers get neglected," said Stacy Banks, program director for South Central L.A. "We help them to see the involvement does not have to be just financial. They can be a part of their child's life. That's new, particularly in the black community."
Banks estimates that more than 60% of the girls with whom she works report "good" relationships with the child's father, whereas in the San Fernando Valley, according to area director Paul Leibowitz, that dips to below half. He explained, "I think a large percentage of our clients are undocumented. (The girls) are very much afraid there'll be some kind of retribution if they name the father."
Nonetheless, Leibowitz said, "We work very hard not only to involve the father but to dispel some of the myths . . . that fathers are sort of gadflies just out to have a good time and exploit these girls. Many of these young men do have a lot of caring; if not for the girl as a mate, they care very much for the baby's welfare. If we don't discount them very often they will respond in a positive way."
He added, "These are young people desperately trying to define their roles."
A major goal of the program is, as Leibowitz put it, to help the young people understand that "they're not necessarily entrapped," their lives aren't ruined, college is not out of the question--in other words, to break the pattern of dropping out of school to find jobs and finding instead the frustration of low-paying, unskilled work.
Beyond that, counselors hope to prevent additional pregnancies and situations leading to child abuse among their clients, and just to be there for girls going through the most stressful period of their lives.
El Nido gets word of its services out through channels most appropriate to the age group it serves and these include rock radio stations and bulletin boards at teen centers.
Recently, in South Central, El Nido sponsored a session where for the first time adults who had coped successfully with teen parenting and had gone on to successful careers came to share their experiences, a kind of pep talk. Another session, for teen fathers, delved into such areas as paternity rights. But, Banks acknowledged, that one didn't get much of a turnout. She said, "Jobs, that's really the focus" for the fathers.