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Arkansas home changes policy to welcome more pregnant teens

July 23, 2018

SPRINGDALE, Ark. (AP) — Sade Danie imagined being a married woman living in a stable home environment when she became a mother.

It didn’t happen that way.

The 18-year-old Washington County resident is pregnant and can no longer contact the father, who she said she left because his drinking made her uncomfortable.

Danie sought a new place to live where she could take better care of herself and her unborn child, and she found Compassion House, a Christian nonprofit organization based in Springdale that owns a house for pregnant teens. She became the first 18-year-old mother-to-be to live there when she moved in June 27, said Cat Rosenschein, Compassion House executive director.

The Compassion House board changed the organization’s age policy and decided to take in pregnant women ages 18-19 a few weeks before Danie arrived, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported. Rosenschein had turned away 11 pregnant women ages 18-19 since January because the original policy only allowed staff to accept teens up to age 17, she said. Turning away women in need because of a nearly three decade-old policy brought Rosenschein to tears.

“I went home crying,” she said.

Opening the house to this age group closed a gap in services for pregnant women in Northwest Arkansas, nonprofit leaders of maternity support organizations said.

Arkansas had the highest teen birth rate in the country in 2016, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest data. The center reported 34.6 per 1,000 teens ages 15-19 became mothers in Arkansas that year. The national teen birth rate was 20.3 per 1,000.

Teen birth rates are highest among women ages 18-19, according to Arkansas Department of Health reports. The 2018 report showed 64.5 per 1,000 women ages 18-19 became mothers in 2016.

Before Compassion House changed its age policy, staff at Loving Choices pregnancy centers had nowhere to send homeless clients ages 18-19, Executive Director Dana Schwiethale said.

Compassion House serves as the only free transitional housing facility in Washington County specifically for pregnant teens and young women, said Kristina Andazola, engagement coordinator for 7 Hills Homeless Center. The center’s staff members work with clients 18 and older, so the age policy change also will impact their clients in need of maternity support.

Havenwood, a nonprofit organization in Bentonville, manages a transitional housing facility for single moms ages 18 and older, said Regan Eaton, Havenwood director of development. Staff members take in pregnant or parenting women who are homeless, subject to domestic violence or living in poverty, but there’s usually a waiting list.

Havenwood houses mothers in one of 15 apartments and enrolls them in a two-year program designed to end a cycle of homelessness, violence or unhealthy lifestyles, Eaton said. Women pay $450 for a studio apartment or $515 for a one-bedroom apartment, and Havenwood workers provide case management services such as parenting classes and other resources paid for through donations.

Compassion House survives on donations from churches, businesses and individuals, Rosenschein said. Teens and young women living in the house get their own bedroom, attend weekly counseling sessions and must continue their education. Staff members also teach residents about the Bible, prioritize Christian principles, and provide transportation to church services and other places as needed.

The two-story house holds up to 12 residents, including children, and mothers typically stay throughout their pregnancy and six months after birth, Rosenschein said.

Rosenschein thinks most pregnant teens are unaware of the resources available to them. Most referrals to Compassion House come from school counselors, churches or family members. Danie contacted Compassion House after a mentor recommended the organization, she said.

“You kind of have to reach out in order for somebody to grab you,” Danie said. “If you don’t reach out, then you’re going to drown.”

Compassion House also receives referrals from organizations such as the Teen Action and Support Center, a nonprofit group based in Rogers sponsoring programs for teens up to age 20. Center staff often work with school counselors to find teens who are pregnant, parenting or in need of housing, said Jennifer Krein, the director of resources and education.

The group’s First Steps program for pregnant or parenting teens requires an online registration, case management meeting and goal setting, Krein said. As parents progress toward their goals, which they may adjust at any time, they receive diapers, wipes and formula as a reward. Staff members also help connect parents to outside resources.

Center staff often encounter pregnant teens who have aged out of foster care or their parents will not help them once they reach 18, Krein said. Before Compassion House changed its age policy, staff referred pregnant women to independent living options or places with less support for young mothers.

“At 18 and 19 years old, they might not be able to go through that living in a one-bedroom apartment completely reliant on themselves,” Krein said. “They may not have the skills or family exposure that they get from Compassion House.”

Danie felt “weirdly excited” about her pregnancy when she moved into Compassion House, she said. The welcoming environment made her feel comfortable and less worried about her situation, enabling her to look forward to motherhood.

“I really just want to know what color his eyes will be,” she said.

The supportive family atmosphere of Compassion House attracted Danie, she said. Her childhood and high school years consisted of constantly adjusting to new home environments as she navigated the foster care system.

“I don’t associate with them because I find myself taking care of them more than I take care of myself,” Danie said of her biological family.

Living at Compassion House allows Danie to focus on caring for herself, she said. Compassion House staff prepare residents for motherhood by teaching them how to parent or assist with adoption by partnering with a local agency, Rosenschein said. Staff members act as mothers who teach the residents what they need to know during pregnancy and after birth.

Most of the clients come from backgrounds not conducive to becoming good parents, and that’s going to continue a cycle of abuse, drugs or a lack of education, Rosenschein said.

Danie dropped out of school after completing the eighth grade but has goals to earn a GED diploma, enroll in college as a math major and eventually get a master’s degree in social work, she said.

“My primary goal is to finish school and make enough to support a family,” she said.

Danie is due in late August and plans to name her son Ezra. She has a boyfriend who she expects will help support her during the pregnancy and after birth, and she’s optimistic her situation will continue to improve, she said.

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Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com