STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

When the kid who needs help has a kid of her own

Monica was 13 years old, and living in Georgia, when she found out she was pregnant.

As she got closer to being a mom, her relationship with her own mom got worse.

“I don’t know when it started," Monica says. "I mean, it started ever since I was pregnant.”

Monica says her mom moved the family to Grand Rapids to get her away from the baby’s father.

Her son Anthony was born in 2010, and Monica became one of the 11 thousand teens who becomes moms every year in Michigan. For a while, it worked. Monica went to school. Her mom watched Anthony during the day.

But the arguments got worse.

"We argued a lot," Monica says. "And she just told me to get out of her house whenever she wanted to, and I didn’t like that. So, one day she’s just going to tell us to get out and then where are we going to go?”

So, earlier this year, Monica and her son Anthony moved into the Teen Parent Center. Monica is still a minor, like most of the other teen moms you’ll hear in these stories. Because of their age, and some of their backgrounds, we won’t be using their full names.

The Teen Parent Center is one of the few places in the state where teen moms can go if they've been kicked out of their homes. It sits on the second floor of a squat brick building on the east side of Grand Rapids. The Center is part of the Salvation Army’s Booth Family Services, which offers a number of programs. Monica found out about the Teen Parent Center because she had gone to Booth’s clinic on the first floor during her pregnancy.

The Teen Parent Center on the second floor, though, is its own world. For security, visitors have to be buzzed in. There’s a long, carpeted hallway. Off to the side are offices for staff, plus a living room with a flat-screen TV, an art room and a computer room. And there’s a big, almost commercial grade kitchen with several freezers and a wide stove top. The Center also offers childcare during the day.

Monica says it’s been great for Anthony.

"He knows half of his alphabet, he knows how to count, he knows like the animal sounds, he knows all his body parts," she says. "And I didn’t teach him. They taught him in daycare."

The Teen Parent Center, as it exists today, started in the 1990s. Betty Zylstra runs Booth Family Services, which runs the Center. She says it came as agencies were figuring out ways to stop homelessness in Grand Rapids.

"And there was a particular gap around young women, particularly teens who were homeless who maybe were pregnant or had children," Zylstra says. "And there was no program that was really set up to take them."

The Salvation Army’s building in Grand Rapids was originally a hospital. For much of the last century, there was a maternity ward for unmarried or pregnant teens.

"And when I started this job too, people would say, ‘Oh, yeah, that was the place. You knew somebody was going there, but nobody would talk about it,'" Zylstra says.

Nobody talked about it, and the mothers almost never kept the children. They’d go up for adoption, rather than be raised by a teen mom.

"Really, in those days, there was such stigma around that," Zylstra says. "Good or bad, there’s not that kind of stigma anymore.” 

The changes at Booth Family Services over the years reflect that change in attitudes about teen pregnancy. The stigma stings less, and adoption is far less common. None of the moms at the Center say they really considered giving up their babies. So, the idea of having a discreet place for a delivery - that’s not what they needed anymore. They needed a place to stay, and someone to teach them how to be a parent.

And that’s what the Teen Parent Center tries to offer today.

But it’s not always pretty.

Things can get heated.

Bre’ia lives at the Teen Parent Center with her son La’Quan. She came here because the arguments at her house got way out of hand.

"But coming here too, it’s like you’re living with a whole bunch of girls. It’s hard to get along because everybody come from somewhere different," Bre'ia says. "And you’re all just not going to jump around each other, ‘Oh, you cool,’ and be friendly and stuff. It takes a lot."

The conflict comes not just between the teen moms, but also the staff, who basically have to act like parents to the teens - enforcing curfews, doling out punishment.

If you spend any amount of time around the teens, you will hear them complain about the staff. And the complaints will probably sound familiar to anyone who’s parented a teen.

“One minute they want us to be grown, the next minute they want to treat us like kids," says Brieana. "Then the next minute they want us to act like adults. Why?"

Breiana clashed with the staff more than most. From the first time I met her, she kept telling me she and her daughter Ca-Shay were going to leave the program. During the summer, after she turned 18, Breiana followed through on her promise.

Now that the four remaining Teen Parent Center moms are back in school, I hear more complaints, about how they don’t get any freedom and they’re not allowed to leave the building on school nights.

One staff member who generates a lot of complaints is Mrs. Folden. Everyone has a title at the Teen Parent Center. When I ask Mrs. Folden for her first name, she’ll only tell me in a whisper: “Teresa,” she says.

“They always think that Mrs. Folden is too strict," she says. "Because, I’m going to make sure they do the right thing, you know what I’m saying? And, when you’re doing your job, you’re not going to be their favorite."

But the conflicts are real. Many of the moms leave the program early because of the restrictions that come with living at the Teen Parent Center. When I first met Monica early in the summer, she told me she was grateful to have a place to live, and she planned to stay until she turns 18. Last week, she told me the restrictions are getting to her. Now she wants to leave this fall.

For Monica, that could be a good thing. She says she’s getting along better with her mom, and her mom is finally willing to take her and Anthony back. Giving teens the time and the ability to mend the wounds in their family is a big part of what the Teen Parent Center is about.

But it’s clear that many of the teen moms leave before they should. Some leave voluntarily and go into less-than-ideal homes. Others made bad decisions and were kicked out.

So, this is one of the big challenges at the Teen Parent Center. It’s one of the big challenges for any agency that tries to help people who come from a troubled background. You can’t force people to change. Even if they want the change. Even if you support them with housing, food and childcare.

Staff at the Teen Parent Center are often trying to undo a lifetime of dysfunction for the moms. One longtime staff-member told me she can’t remember having a single teen mom who came from a two-parent household herself. For many, that was the least of their problems.

Really, the Teen Parent Center is trying to impact two generations of disadvantaged kids at the same time. It’s not easy work. It doesn’t always have the outcome you would hope.

But if you stick around long enough, and you listen, occasionally you’ll hear that even the teens think it’s worth it.

"There may be some stuff that might not be good about this program," says Bre'ia. "But at the end, you benefit from it a lot."

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.