Building Self-Sufficiency Among Welfare-Dependent Teenage Parents: Lessons from the Teenage Parent Demonstration. Program Design and Implementation Issues


Implementing mandatory programs for welfare-dependent teenage parents presented major challenges not previously addressed in the AFDC program.  Success depended on staff's acceptance of the notion that it was appropriate to target teenage parents for this type of intervention.  It also depended on their accepting, or at least tolerating, the idea of requiring these young mothers to go to school, job training, or work (and imposing consequences on those who failed to accept this responsibility), though complying with program requirements meant the mothers had to leave their babies in the care of another person for substantial blocks of time.

The programs had to recognize and address the special circumstances that prevented some young mothers from maintaining a full-time schedule of work or school.  For some, these circumstances were episodic.  Nonetheless, when they occurred, it was essential for the program to offer services designed to help the mothers conquer the barriers.  Staff had to provide follow-up and use project resources for those in need, including those whose underlying reason for nonparticipation or noncooperation was not immediately evident.  For example, a case manager who took the initiative to visit the home of a young mother who repeatedly failed to show up for program classes found that the participant and her partner had to sleep in shifts at night so that one of them could guard their baby's crib against rats at all times.  The case manager helped the couple find better housing and the young mother began attending program classes.

Four aspects of program implementation were especially challenging:

  1. Outreach and recruitment;
  2. Designing appropriate workshops;
  3. Case management; and
  4. Developing appropriate school, job training, and employment options.

Enrolling Teenage Mothers in the Program

In contrast to many small-scale, voluntary programs for teenage parents, the intent of the Teenage Parent Demonstration -- as with the adolescent parent provisions of the Family Support Act -- was to serve all teenage parents who met the program eligibility criteria.  To achieve this goal, the programs had to develop systems of universal identification of eligible young mothers, plus outreach and follow-up procedures to promote initial and ongoing participation.

The experiences of the demonstration underscored the desirability of early identification and referral.  It also highlighted the importance of attention to case detail and strong quality control in the process of identifying minor mothers.

A combination of manual and automated procedures for identifying eligible teenage parents was essential in this demonstration and most likely would be required in any replication.  Manual identification procedures, while time-consuming, have the advantage of providing an opportunity to motivate clients from the start.  In contrast, automated procedures tend to be less burdensome, but more prone to error (because of inconsistencies in data input), and require a longer lag between AFDC enrollment and identification.

The programs achieved high rates of initial and moderate rates of ongoing participation -- an achievement founded on the mandatory participation requirements.  Case managers were held accountable for helping the young mothers to address their barriers to participation and the young mothers had to comply or face financial penalties.  They used a variety of approaches to overcome clients' reluctance to participate -- reasoning with them, encouraging them, and speaking with clients' mothers to win support for their daughters' participation, for example.  They chided clients when they missed appointments or slacked off in attendance, and reminded them they had to choose between participating and a sanction.  These efforts often extended over long periods, with many clients going through recurrent cycles of participation and resistance.

Program policies and actions that facilitated case managers' efforts to promote participation included offering flexible schedules, providing on-site child care, promoting informality at meetings, using group meetings to break down isolation, and assigning participants to case managers immediately following intake.

Designing Workshops for Teenage Parents

Demonstration workshops served three purposes: 

  1. As a way for participants to acquire important information -- about nutrition, drugs, family planning, workplace demands, parenting, child support, and other topics;
  2. As personal development tools -- integrating participants into the program; building motivation, interpersonal skills, and program acceptance; and dispelling fears about the program; and
  3. As assessment opportunities -- enabling program staff to assess participants' behavioral and cognitive strengths and weaknesses directly.

Staff in all three programs generally agreed on the purposes of workshops, but adopted quite different approaches to integrating them into the sequence of program activities -- approaches that differed in the length of initial workshops, the types of staff used to conduct workshops, and the emphasis placed on initial versus ongoing workshops.

The extensive initial workshops offered in New Jersey provided greater opportunity for socialization and formation of peer relationships.  The extensive workshops also offered more opportunity for participants' personal interests, communications and social skills, family problems, and motivation to be clarified before decisions were made about involvement in ongoing education or training.  On the other hand, the brief, closely spaced workshops offered in Chicago held the young mothers' generally brief attention more successfully.  Moreover, the briefer workshops allowed new participants to move more quickly into substantive education or training.

Using case managers to run workshops had several advantages, the most obvious being that case mangers used the workshops as assessment opportunities for participants assigned to their caseloads.  Using regular case managers to run workshops also held down program costs but added to the strain on them and limited their opportunities to tap outside expertise.

The programs tapped a variety of sources of expertise and specialized skills for workshops.  For example, under contracts or occasionally no-costs interagency agreements, workshop leaders came from the local Planned Parenthood Association for family planning workshops, from county extension services for nutrition and life skills workshops, and a nonprofit drug rehabilitation program for an AIDS/drug abuse workshop, and several small nonprofit agencies for life skills and grooming workshops.

Case Management

Because of the complex needs and diversity of this population, strong case management was an essential feature of the programs.  The demonstration experience highlighted the importance of individualizing services for young welfare mothers and of modifying them over time as necessary.  This individualization can best be accomplished if a single staff person -- such as a case manager or continuous counselor -- becomes familiar with a teenager and has ongoing responsibility for her.  Case managers spent much of their time trying to find the right combination of supportiveness and helpfulness on the one hand, and pressure and clear expectations on the other.  These efforts sometimes extended to home visits.

Case management services were almost universally appreciated by the young mothers.  Although many were sanctioned or warned that they would be sanctioned, their feelings about the program were generally extremely positive.  Praise for the personal and caring attention of case managers and other program staff was especially high.  Case managers linked the teenagers to the services they needed, monitored their progress in the program, offered advice and guidance for personal problems, and provided much-needed support and encouragement.  For many young mothers, the case managers also served as role models or surrogate parents:

"When I go to Project Advance, they know me, they speak to me . . . If I do something that's stupid, they know it, they tell me.  When I do something good, they all praise you for it.

It is the one program that actually motivates someone to do something.  There was always something going on even if you weren't working.  You didn't have to be in the street, and you didn't have to sit in your house." (A client)

In these programs, as in other initiatives that are run as part of the state welfare system, flexibility in recruiting staff trained to work with this population was limited.  As a result, substantial staff training and skilled supervision were needed to help case managers work effectively with the broad spectrum of clients they had to serve.

Program managers had to organize their staffs and define roles for a broad range of functions:  counseling individual clients, leading group intake sessions, conducting program workshops, maintaining client case records, entering data into automated systems, collecting and recording attendance data for on-site and off-site program activities, issuing sanction warning notices and communicating with income maintenance to impose or end sanctions, developing child care resources and arranging child care, developing contacts with community service providers, and coordinating special tasks to support the research data needs.  Program managers helped case managers by providing specialized staff roles, developing service links, providing adequate supervision, monitoring and controlling caseloads, and promoting staff morale and stability.

Education and Job Training Services

To enforce mandatory participation requirements, programs had to make adequate activity options available for the young mothers.  This proved to be a major challenge.  Job training was available through many providers, including community colleges, vocational high schools, JTPA, and proprietary schools.  Access tended, however, to be restricted primarily to high school graduates and those with reasonably strong basic skills.

All three sites had ample number of educational opportunities, but the programs often failed to meet the range of needs reflected among the large portion of the population for whom education was the only immediately available option.  In addressing the varied needs, the programs used a combination of existing and new educational programs; each type of program offered advantages and disadvantages.  Existing General Educational Development (GED) and Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs were provided primarily by community colleges and adult schools operated by local school districts.  The young mothers, however, often felt uncomfortable in classes with older adults and teachers accustomed to serving a broader adult population tended to be insensitive to the problems faced by teenage parents.  In-house classes ensured that participants talked frequently with their case managers and that case managers and academic instructors could maintain close ties.  Nonetheless, all educational programs still had to deal with the limited attention spans of the young mothers and their lack of interest in noncontextual learning.

Successful educational alternatives included intensive and very personalized academic instruction built around group interaction and cooperation, support counseling, group research projects in the community, and paid work experience assignments.  One option placed participants in alternative secondary educational settings, which sometimes required a parental waiver of school district responsibility and negotiation with school district officials who were reluctant to see their regular enrollments diminish.