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Baby Steps makes great strides

Baby Steps program participants celebrate high school graduation. Photo courtesy of Wilson County, N.C.

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Success in School Initiative helps teen parents in Wilson County, N.C. schools to improve graduation rate and strengthen the parenting abilities

Parenting is full of challenges. When a high school youth has a child, the challenges are magnified. The time-consuming focus on meeting a newborn’s needs bumps right up against the teen’s need and desire to become a responsible, self-sufficient adult, albeit perhaps sooner than they anticipated. Key to the economic future of their new family is staying in school while juggling the full-time job of being a mom or dad.

Given this dynamic and potential for poor family outcomes, Wilson County, N.C.’s Department of Social Services launched the Success in School Initiative. By providing intensive case management and concrete support services, Success in School works to improve Wilson County’s graduation rate and strengthen the parenting ability of the teens receiving services. Teaching teens about early childhood development and focusing on academic achievement through varied learning opportunities is key to the program’s success. In so doing, the county is confronting and working to break a cycle of poverty within families.

Historically, Wilson County  had one of the higher teen pregnancy rates in North Carolina and was serving many teens through its child care subsidy program. Department leaders and employees recognized more was needed than child care to ensure that a teen parent successfully completed high school and graduated. Beginning in 2008, Wilson County implemented Success in School by using its child care subsidy social workers to link case management services with teen parents. Giving a much-needed child care subsidy along with other social service supports allowed the county to address teen pregnancy, high school dropout rates and the stresses of poverty in an expanded manner. 

Just like the teens it works with, the Social Services Department knows it cannot do it alone. It has acquired several grants to support the initiative and works collaboratively with a host of key community partners, including the county school system, and health department and other non-county entities such as Eastpointe, a local managed care organization providing behavioral health, substance abuse and developmental disability services.

Also involved are the Wilson Family YMCA and Wesley Shelter, serving domestic violence victims. Through participation on a Community Advisory Council, the community partners provide specific supportive services as well as concrete guidance on program implementation. Programming has grown to include Baby Steps, a case management program funded by the Division of Public Health that places a social worker at Beddingfield High School to solicit referrals and build relationships with staff and students.

 The Wilson County Department of Social Services understands the importance of attachment in the early childhood years and works to promote it among a vulnerable teen parent population. Baby Steps works side-by-side with the teen parent to support them as a parent and a student. Goals are set and incentives for goal completion are made, with supportive services such as transportation and child care underlying those efforts.

Through Baby Steps, the county’s social work staff complete weekly face-to-face visits with the teen parents, including home visits. The visits use the nationally recognized, research-based Partners for a Healthy Baby curriculum used in many home visiting programs. Services can begin with an expectant parent and each weekly visit focuses on health and safety information.

County staff ensure that the parents are receiving prenatal care, that the infant has an established medical home and that all immunizations are up to date. A safety inspection is completed in the home and safe sleep is addressed with all parents and family members. The teens are also educated on the benefits of delaying a second pregnancy. Along with these evidence- based practices, Wilson County staff applies a continuous quality improvement framework in order to adjust the program as lessons are learned.

These efforts are demonstrating results. Since 2008, 133 teen parents have participated, 58 teen parents have graduated, and 34 are currently enrolled. Seventy percent of the teen parents enrolled have remained in school or graduated. And, most recently, the efforts of the county and its partners were recognized as a semi-finalist in the Innovations in American Government Award through the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. 

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