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ADOLESCENT PARENT PROGRAM OFFERS CRUCIAL TOOLS FOR FUTURE

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My niece, Karen, is going to be 14 in October.

She's tall for her age - towering inches above most of the boys in her class - and has wide-set, pale blue eyes that brim with laughter and mischief most of the time. She's in junior high in Idaho.Right now, the pivotal points of her life are uncomplicated: She can't wait to get rid of her braces. She just got contact lenses and can't believe how much she loves them. She recently experienced her first real outbreak of acne.

Fun still revolves around a giggling match with her girlfriends and she's a contender for the regional title. She hasn't outgrown fishing with her dad, although she would rather roller skate than hang out with us old folks.

She likes to devil her sister, who's 91/2. Boys no longer irritate her, but she's not fascinated by them yet. She's bossy and sweet at the same time.

She's a typical early teen, full of contradictions and confusion one moment, sure of herself the next.

When I talked to Jan Kraft recently, I thought of Karen.

Kraft works with teenage mothers, most of them slightly older than Karen, but a few as young as 11 years old.

The very thought is startling. Girls Karen's age, it seems to me, are just mastering the art of being sisters and daughters. How in the world can they wrap their maturity levels around a monumental task like motherhood?

Kraft and Jon Pierpoint share the challenge of helping them do just that. And it's a very serious business.

The United States spent $26 billion in 1991 on public assistance for adolescent mothers and their children.

That cost, Kraft pointed out, doesn't include the costs that result from illiteracy (teen parenting is the top reason girls drop out of high school), poor role modeling and the all-too-possible generational cycles of dysfunction and poverty within families.

The Adolescent Parent Program, which tries to change the future for young mothers, just got a reprieve from Human Services officials.

The 6-year-old program was slated for the junk pile just a few days ago. The officials decided to hold off for a while on a plan to eliminate the program.

The program begins by emphasizing prenatal care. Teenagers often don't understand the importance of the care and aren't sure how to get it or other crucial services.

The cost for medical care of infants who are born to teen parents who didn't get that care is stupendous.

More than half of the women who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children had their first child when they were still teenagers. That's one reason I consider the Adolescent Parenting Program meaningful welfare reform.

The class doesn't reach the teens in time to prevent pregnancy, but it does give teenagers some of the skills they will need to be good parents, self-reliant instead of dependent.

Besides medical care, the girls/baby-women receive parenting classes, develop skills like budgeting and, perhaps most important, form a network of support to see them through what will inevitably be tough times.

The program is already limited, reaching mere handfuls of adolescents in Salt Lake County, although there are hundreds or even thousands who need it.

Kraft has encouraged officials to expand the program; she was devastated when she heard it might be eliminated.

Her concern wasn't for her job; she'd just be transferred elsewhere in the Office of Family Support. She knows how important it is to reach young mothers and mothers-to-be early in order to guard their futures and that of their children.

Call if welfare reform. Call it expensive but necessary. Call it tragic that the need for such a program exists.

Just, please, don't call it quits.