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Teen Mom Support Fraying Says Report

B.C.'s stay-in-school programs for teen mothers said to be hurt by cuts, policy shifts.

Judith Ince 21 Dec
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A legacy from the era of Bill Vander Zalm is disintegrating, but it's a disappearing act that's largely gone unnoticed. The former premier's opposition to abortion and allegiance to family values led him to promote programs allowing pregnant teens and school aged parents to finish their education.

But The Tyee has obtained a copy of a recent report that describes a decaying support system for teen parents at both the school and community level. Written by the B.C. Alliance Concerned with Early Pregnancy and Parenthood, the report cites provincial budget cuts, ministerial reorganization, and a failure of political nerve as the culprits in the loss of teen parent programs.

The Alliance report, while being studied by government officials, has yet to be formally rolled out to the public.

Teen mothers gave birth to 1428 children last year, according to Dave O'Neil, manager of population statistics for B.C. The provincial birthrate has plummeted over the past decade, falling from 23 to 12 births per thousand women 19. However, there are enormous regional variations. Vancouver has the lowest provincial rate at 6 births per thousand. However, Nisga'a had the highest teen birthrate in the province--66 per thousand—reflecting the fact that Aboriginal teens account for a quarter of all babies born to teen mothers in the province.

Variability in teen birth rates is caused by are "a whole boatload of socio-economic factors that affect it: access to education, poverty, access to social services, access to reproductive health care," according to Alex McKay, the research coordinator of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. In Vancouver, for example, there were only 0.8 births per 1,000 women under 19 on the city's affluent west-side, but the rate was more than twenty times higher in the downtown eastside, the poorest part of town.

Rates down, needs up

The Alliance report, completed in August, found that despite declining birth rates among teens, the needs of the moms and their babies have increased, and demands placed on support programs are growing. "This is reportedly due to two main factors," the report states, "young parents are entering the system with a greater number of support needs than ever before, and a greater proportion of young parents are accessing the supports available."

There is no province-wide coordination of resources for teen parents so programs are inconsistent from one community to another. Programs rely on a hodge-podge of resources from government, charities, and community organizations, and all report highly unstable funding.

Vancouver's Young Parent Services (TYPS) at Charles Tupper Secondary, has survived threats to its existence, but stays open thanks to funding from private and public sources. Tom Grant, the area superintendent for the Vancouver School Board (VSB), says, "We have re-energized the program, replaced the portable it was in. It now has its own lounge, classrooms, and kitchen. And the daycare is just next door."

Kristen Closs, 17, is one of the students in the Tupper program. Closs says she's determined to 'have it all,' a baby, an education, a career. "I'm getting my schooling and I'm going somewhere," she says. Her seven-month old son Tanner is sleeping at Emma's daycare, in a portable just a few steps from the TYPS building, close enough so she can keep nursing him on a 'demand' schedule. Like all but three of the 20 girls in the program, Closs follows a self-paced program of study.

'Double developmental challenge'

Jane Bouey, a VSB trustee, says Tupper's program is money well spent, as society will reap the benefits of having these girls remain in school while their children receive superior early childhood development at a high-quality day-care. "Statistically, the more education you have, the higher income you make, and thus the more taxes you pay," she say, although she cautions, "I hate having to use the paying-more-taxes argument, because I think that people contribute to society—whether or not they pay taxes," she says.

Most young parent programs have an educational component as well as a spectrum of support services, including parenting and life skills, counseling, and financial assistance. Teen parents have complex needs, because as the Alliance report notes, "they have a double developmental challenge—learning to be effective parents to meet their children's developmental needs while still learning about themselves as developing adults." But because these needs are also expensive, some "school administrators can realize cost savings by reducing or withdrawing supports such as counselors, school lunch program, janitorial services and utility costs." In Victoria, for example, the report states that counseling services have been reduced to a 0.2 position—one day a week, instead of five.

On this December morning just before Christmas break, students at Tupper are preparing a hearty breakfast of granola, fruit salad, and scrambled eggs. Carolee McGillivray, the program teacher, says "Ultimately, we are an education program,and whatever they need, we find a way to accommodate it." But graduating from high school is just one of the goals. Other, practical skills--budgeting, menu-making, cooking, and the teamwork that goes along with it—are also built into the students' day.

Next door at Emma's daycare, the students' children are also tucking into breakfast. Joy Chakraborty, the senior supervisor, says meals and snacks are possible thanks to a private donor; meanwhile, the YWCA, which operates Emma's is subsidizing the care given the infants and toddlers at the facility. Cindy Soules, the Y's corporate development and planning director says supporting Emma's fulfill's the organization's "mission to touch lives and build better futures, by working with women to attain economic independence and equal opportunities."

Debate over funding levels

Although she praises the support the Y gives Tupper students, Bouey says "the survival of such essential programs shouldn't be so dependent on the incredible charity of a few good people. I think that society, as a whole, should take responsibility."

The Alliance report highlights problems for young parents needing daycare. It notes that changes to funding formulas, eligibility for child care subsidies, and new deductions to childcare support money from income assistance payments. These have spelled problems for parents who need childcare in order to stay in school

Hillel Goelman has studied childcare extensively. The director of the Consortium for Health, Intervention, Learning and Development at UBC, Goelman says "the government is certainly putting less money into regulated childcare." Before the Liberals came to power, $65 million went into childcare operating funds, an amount that has been whittled down to $48 million over the past three years. "And it's really hard to operate childcare with such meager funding," he says.

Kate Thompson, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Children and Families, denied that it has withdrawn support for childcare. Under this government, she said, "more access has been granted," and programs are "expanding." She pointed to a recent funding announcement of $33 million for daycare. However, a report from the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. says this money merely replaces a portion of the $42 million cut from the child care budget in 2004/05 alone.

Baby brings focus

A recent report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development was "very critical of where Canada is; we're far behind other developed countries" Goelman says. In most other developed countries, governments cover about 85 percent of the childcare budgets, but in B.C., like the rest of Canada, that figure drops to 15 percent. "We have a market-driven model, which means that there's a belief that the marketplace will respond to the need," he says. But under this model, only 14 percent of children who need childcare are able to find it in a regulated setting, a number that he says is even smaller for infants.

Emma's daycare is licensed to take infants from birth. McGillivray says, "A lot of girls are just so driven--some of them want to get back to class a week after they've had their baby." In fact, Chakraborty says that the birth of their child seems to inspire many students to change their lives. "I hear them say, 'Now that I have a baby, I want to do better, to get my education.'"

While the young mothers are optimistic about their future, they also acknowledge that they face many challenges. Most use public transit to come to school, and Caroline Chung, one of the mothers says, "It's hard to get on the bus with a stroller in one arm, a baby in the other--and a backpack."

Rat infested housing

And then there's housing. Agnes Tolbert is well acquainted with hardship, having arrived in Canada from a refugee camp in Liberia. "Some days, I didn't eat," she recalls. Although she considers herself lucky to have a two-bedroom apartment for $575 a month, it's not without its problems. Her basement suite is unheated, rodents scurry around her floors and in her walls, and the locks on doors and windows don't seem very secure. "It's not healthy for my daughter," she says. But the landlord says if she can't stand the cold and the vermin, then she can always find somewhere else to live.

Linda Mix, the co-ordinator of the Tenants' Rights Action Coalition, says Tolbert's situation is fairly typical of the plight of young mothers. "People suffer in silence," she says, "We see a lot of young parents who are reluctant to make complaints, because they are afraid they'll be evicted."

Young parents like Tolbert who might be eligible for social housing have a long wait ahead of them, Mix says. The government scrapped the Homes B.C. program, which has "created a huge gap in the housing supply for low income families." And although the Human Rights Act prohibits discriminating against a person based on family status, Mix says "we hear from tenants all over the province that they're turned away if they show up with their children."

Mary Clare Zak, the executive director of the Society for Children and Youth in B.C. says, "Announcements have been made about housing, but we're concerned that families with children are being overlooked. We're hearing about families having to sleep in cars. But mothers with young children aren't as visible as other homeless people."

Cuts to shelter allowance

Some of the young mothers who are working towards graduation are on social assistance, and have seen their shelter allowance cut. Michael Goldberg, of the Social Planning and Research Council (SPARC), says "all parents on income assistance are really struggling with the decision about whether they pay rent, or they feed themselves. And that comes up over and over and over again."

As the Tupper moms linger over breakfast before school starts for the day, they talk about their experiences out and about in the world, and among other students who don't have children. This group says they have experienced little social disapproval, although one says she's had the odd "weird comment." McGillivray says the mothers are tightly knit, "women supporting women in non-judgmental ways. The one thing we don't tolerate here is judgment."

Deirdre Kelly, a UBC professor, has studied teen mothers in B.C. When she did her research in the mid-90s, she says teen moms were often the targets of stigmatizing labels. "Stupid slut" was a common one. A girl who had premarital sex was condemned as promiscuous--even as her partner was praised as a "player." But the censure didn't stop there. A girl who got pregnant, was rapped for being "stupid"—to have not used birth control.

The Alliance report suggests that the experience of many student parents is closer to the one Kelly observed a decade ago than to the Tupper moms'. Interviews with teen moms and staff of young parent programs around the province found that "the negative experiences ranged from peers snickering and calling them names to school administration asking them to find another school. The result, often, was to drop out." Parent programs have been especially useful in buffering this hostility—and keeping the teen parents in school.

Overcoming stigma

Whether or not the teen programs like Tupper's are successful is unknown. Squeezed by budget shortfalls and excessive demands on their time, staff cannot afford the luxury of keeping statistics on graduation rates, long-term well-being of students and their children, or any other measures of success. This, the report concludes, is a serious problem that could be addressed by a coherent province-wide program of support for teen parents. However, the social and political climate are not favourable to allocating sufficient resources to attend to teen parents' complex and expensive needs, due to a societal backlash that "focuses on the young parents themselves, who are perceived as being rewarded for their 'mistakes,'" the report says.

But at Tupper, the young parents don't see their children as mistakes. Like mothers everywhere, they haul out photos of their beaming toddlers and slumbering infants. And voices rich with maternal joy, they talk about those children with unbridled joy. "I love having a baby—watching him grow and learn everything," Kristen Closs says. And all the mothers in the room nod in agreement.

Judith Ince is a staff writer for The Tyee with special focuses on health and education.  [Tyee]

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