Sunday, March 04, 2001

At-risk mothers tutored on child care

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sitting on a couch at her aunt's home, 16-year-old Jebriel Jenkins gets a homework lesson most high school students won't need.

Jebriel Jenkins, 16, holds her daughter, Precious Fox, during a visit by Pam Bowers of Every Child Succeeds.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
        Pam Bowers, a “parent educator,” is tutoring the Finneytown girl on how to encourage her baby, 10-month-old Precious Fox. It's an informal lesson in motherhood and early childhood development.

        “How is she doing with her language skills?” Ms. Bowers asks. “Is she pointing to things? Does she respond to "No?' ”

        Jebriel nods yes and says that Precious plays patty-cake and can roll her hands around imaginary dough.

        “That's good!” Ms. Bowers says.

        “That parent-child interaction is important for her brain. All that kissing and playing and hugging helps her social and emotional development.”

        It's an important lesson, a baby step on Jebriel's road to responsible parenting, and a crucial goal for Every Child Succeeds.

        The program, which provides at-home visits for first-time mothers in tough circumstances, is one year old. It offers a variety of assistance, from parenting training, to child-health assessments, to home-safety checks.

Hoping to help more

        The program has helped nearly 1,200 young mothers in six counties in Ohio and Kentucky its first year. Next year, the target is 1,600 mothers.

  Every Child Succeeds, a year-old program, provides health and social services to at-risk first-time mothers and their children.
  • Telephone: 636-2830.
  • Enrollment: 1,182 mothers.
  • Annual budget: $5 million.
  • Counties served: Hamilton, Clermont, Brown, Kenton, Campbell and Boone.
  • Client profile
  - 92 percent unmarried.
  - 80 percent low-income.
  - 79 percent report “other life challenges,” including substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, lack of housing, unemployment and illiteracy.
  - 65 percent live in Hamilton County; 20 percent in Kenton County; 15 percent in the other four counties.
  - 56 percent white; 40 percent African-American; 4 percent, other races.
  - 54 percent are age 18 or younger, including 4 percent younger than 14.
  Source: Every Child Succeeds
        “Our mission is to provide an optimal start to as many at-risk children as possible,” said Judith Van Ginkel, the program's president.

        The idea for Every Child Succeeds comes from research showing that healthy stimulation — or the lack of it — during a child's first three years can have life-long consequences, Ms. Van Ginkel said.

        “We've all read what's happening in the high schools and what's happening in families. All of that really starts in (those) first three years,” said Gibbs Mac Veigh, who chairs its board of trustees.

        The program has a $5 million annual budget, paid for by United Way, foundations, 14 corporations and from billable services. Sponsors also include Children's Hospital Medical Center and the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency/Head Start.

        Besides Every Child Succeeds, several other programs offer parent training and child assessment in the Tristate, including Early Start, which is helping 400 mothers, and Parent Partners, which is helping 92.

        In 1998, the latest year for available statistics, more than 3,200 teen-aged girls gave birth in the Tristate. The challenges many of them face have been well-documented: They are more likely to drop out of high school, live in poverty, abuse alcohol and drugs, and abuse or neglect their children.

        Their babies are more likely to suffer health problems and learning disabilities, often from lack of prenatal care, premature birth or their mother's substance abuse during pregnancy.

Importance of visits

        But these are risks, not fate, said Dr. Robert Ammerman, professor of pediatrics.

        Frequent home visits through Every Child Succeeds can help uncover medical or learning disabilities, evidence of abuse or neglect, and other problems early, he said.

        “Many (of the mothers) bring with them a history of complications,” he said. “Almost one third are clinically depressed at the start of the program. Sixty percent of the moms report themselves as victims of past abuse or neglect.”

        Once a baby is born, the home visits usually start out weekly and taper off to once a month, until the child is 3.

        “We think the presence of a regular visitor makes a difference in preventing abuse,” he said. “We also think we help parents feel less overwhelmed, and that reduces the risk of a shaken baby.”

        The program can help with other stressors. For people in Every Child Succeeds, money is tight. Illiteracy and lack of reliable housing are common issues.

        “We have many mothers who can't pay their rent, get evicted and wind up bouncing around among their relatives and boyfriends,” Dr. Ammerman said.

A lot to juggle

               Jebriel lives with her aunt. When asked, she concedes to Ms. Bowers that she has not been using the learning games Ms. Bowers dropped off at a previous visit.

        “You haven't done any of the games?” Ms. Bowers said. “Those are important, too. It all has to do with brain development.”

        The program is still too new to measure its success, and prevention efforts are inherently difficult to measure, Dr. Ammerman said.

        Jebriel isn't worried about statistics. She is busy trying to balance baby care with school work, a social life and softball. Jebriel said she wants to graduate from Winton Woods High School and some day become a teacher.

        She said she won't forget what she has learned already.

        “It's important to interact with your baby so they can learn to interact and how to love,” Jebriel said. “I learned that you're the most important person in your baby's life.”



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