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

A teen mom, twice

Dustin Dwyer

I first met Keisha late in the summer, when she was 16.  It was her second day living at the Salvation Army's Teen Parent Center in Grand Rapids.

Keisha is not her real name, by the way. The staff at the Teen Parent Center asked us to change her name to protect her identity. 

So, the first time I saw her, she was sitting on a couch with another teen mom. She didn’t say much at first. When she did, she spoke quietly, admitting what it had been like for her to move in to this place.  

“I was mad," she said. "I was crying . . . I ain’t used to it yet."

Keisha was different from the other moms living at the shelter because she was the only one who didn’t have custody of her child. Her daughter was in foster care at the time. She told me her daughter was taken away because of something that happened at her daughter’s dad’s house.

Child Protective Services (CPS) is not allowed to talk to reporters about specific foster care cases.

Keisha says CPS never had a problem with her, but once her daughter went into foster care, she had to prove she could handle custody all on her own. 

"It’s hard getting her back," Keisha said. "That’s why I came here . . . ‘cause, they was like, this is like one of the options for her to come back home to see how I do on my own without my mom."

The Teen Parent Center is a housing shelter, but Keisha told me she had come here voluntarily, as a way to prove to the court that she could get along with staff, and take responsibility for parenting her daughter.

She became a mom when she was basically still a child herself. She was 14, in the eighth grade, when she got pregnant. 

"I always said, I don’t want no kids," she told me. "But then, I got pregnant."

When it happened, she was the last to believe it. Finally, she says her mom took her to a doctor’s office.

"You don’t want to know what she said," Keisha said of her mom's reaction. "She said a lot. She was cussing me out. She was mad. She was mad for a long time but then she got over it."

It was her mom who helped take care of the baby while Keisha went back to school.  But by the time I met Keisha, the baby was two, and she’d spent most of her life in foster care, at Keisha’s aunt’s house.

Originally, Keisha thought she’d get her daughter back after a month at the Teen Parent Center. But a month later, her daughter still wasn’t there.  

"She should be coming soon," Keisha told me in the fall. 

Keisha told me she was going to move out of the Teen Parent Center not long after she got her daughter back. She was going to go live with her mom. No later than February, she said.

Then came a surprise.

In November, she found out she was pregnant again.

"I'm not excited," she said. 

Not long after she got that news, she won back custody of her two year-old daughter.   

This is what Keisha had been working for:  to be reunited with her daughter.  But there was much more work to be done. She had follow-up meetings with her caseworkers. She was taking care of a two year-old and handling her pregnancy at the same time. And she was still in school.

She used to tell people she didn't want kids. Now she's a 17 year-old mother of two.

A lot of the moms at the Teen Parent Center are carrying a heavy burden. They made adult choices, and they have adult responsibilities.  But they’re still figuring out how to be adults.

This kind of dual life that teen moms live creates a challenge for the staff at the Teen Parent Center. It’s really a challenge for anyone working with a teen. Sometimes they need to be treated like adults. Sometimes they act like children.

One staff member who’s seen a lot of moms come through the program is Miss Linda.

"Since I been here, I haven’t had one that came from a  ...  solid home," she says. "There was always some kind of drama in the home."

Every staff member at the Teen Parent Center has a different approach for how to help the moms. For Miss Linda, it’s lots of hugs.  

"We just try to nurture them and mold them and shape them to be productive mothers out there in this world," Miss Linda says.

In early February, Keisha had her baby – another girl.

She used to tell people she didn’t want kids. Now she’s a 17 year-old mother of two.

I tried to reach out to Keisha’s own mom, but Keisha told me she moved out of the state, along with Keisha’s sisters.

Now all Keisha has is the staff at the Teen Parent Center and her boyfriend. Keisha tells me he works a lot. He dropped out of high school to get more hours at his fast food job. After Keisha turns 18 and has to leave the Teen Parent Center, they might move in together.

"That was our plan," she says. "To move together, so we can go half on rent, so rent won’t be so much on me."

She plans to finish high school no later than the fall, and go to college to be a nurse — or maybe a social worker. . . or a teacher. . . or a lawyer. She’s changed her mind a few times.

Did you have your life figured out when you were 17?

I didn’t. 

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.
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