Enrolling Teenage AFDC Parents in Mandatory Education and Training Programs: Lessons from the Teenage Parent Demonstration. Promoting Participation from the Start


After teenage parents were identified as eligible for Teen Progress or Project Advance, program staff mailed notices to them instructing them to attend a baseline intake session about a week later.  This session was used to collect baseline information and conduct basic skills testing, for program evaluation purposes, and for use by program staff in assessing participant needs.  The baseline intake session was the first occasion on which the teenage parents were expected to respond to a program requirement and the first opportunity for them to be exposed to program staff and introduced in detail to the program.  Although the intake session was conducted with groups, as the first required attendance at a program activity, this initial session corresponds to the initial evaluation session to which AFDC recipients are to be referred under the JOBS program.

The experience of operating these initial baseline sessions for the demonstration provides some lessons about two important aspects of the program "front-end."  First, it underscores the importance of persistent efforts to bring teenage parents into the program.  Second, it has provided guidance on ways of making this first meeting with teenage participants a productive beginning.

Promoting Response to Initial Call-In

The Teenage Parent Demonstration has demonstrated that it is possible to achieve high rates of initial compliance with a mandatory program that offers education and training, case management, and support services to teenage parents who receive AFDC.  Of all the eligible teenage parents referred to the demonstration program during the research intake period, 97 percent completed intake in Camden, 88 percent in Newark, and 86 percent in Chicago.

These eventual rates of intake completion were achieved only after persistent efforts by demonstration staff.  As Table 2 and Figure 2 show (for the two New Jersey programs combined), sending repeated call-in notices warning of the possibility of sanctions, and actually imposing sanctions if necessary, were important factors in achieving high intake compliance rates.  Only 44 percent of those called in for intake in Camden, and 32 percent in Newark, attended the first intake appointments.(8)  Teenage parents who failed to appear at a first intake appointment were usually sent warning notices within a few days setting a new appointment for the following week, although procedural difficulties sometimes prevented this from happening that promptly.(9) 


Table 2
Motivation for Intake Completion
Teenage Parent Demonstration
New Jersey Programs Combined

Completed After First Call-in


Completed After Warning Notice


Completed After Sanction Imposed


Did Not Complete Intake



Sanction warning notices promoted further response:  76 percent of Camden teenage parents who did not attend the first appointment responded to one of the following warning notices and completed intake, as did 57 percent in Newark.  The combination of the first call-in notice and subsequent sanction warning notices raised the rate of intake compliance to 86 percent of all eligible referrals in Camden, 71 percent in Newark, and about 80 percent in Chicago.

If referred teenage parents did not respond to repeated call-in notices to attend intake, case managers sent requests to the appropriate IM staff to impose a sanction; the AFDC grant was reduced by removal of the teenage parent's needs from the benefit calculation.  Imposing sanctions raised the rate of intake compliance slightly further.  In Camden, intake-related sanctions were imposed on about eight percent of the eligible teenage parents; most responded and completed intake, raising Camden's overall intake completion rate to 97 percent.  In Newark, intake-related sanctions were more common but less effective; they were imposed on 13 percent of all eligible participants, reflecting the lower rate of response to initial call-in and warning notices.  However, only about half those sanctioned responded, raising the intake completion rate in Newark to 88 percent.  In Chicago, intake-related sanctions were imposed on nine percent of eligible referrals; about two-thirds responded, leading to an overall intake completion rate of 86 percent.

Although all the sites were able to achieve quite high rates of initial compliance, the lower intake completion rate in Newark provides a useful illustration of the importance of systematic adherence to procedures for call-in, sanction warning, and sanctions in a program designed to be mandatory.  The Newark program encountered difficulties through most or the operations period in instituting systematic and reliable Income Maintenance unit procedures for imposing sanctions on non-compliant teenage parents.  Sanctions were in some cases requested, but either not imposed or imposed after substantial delay.  Although the Newark program imposed a high rate of sanctions, many were imposed after long delay.  Prompt and systematic tracking of intake response would probably have resulted in still more sanctions and possibly in a higher rate of intake compliance.  When tighter monitoring and sanctioning procedures were worked out between the demonstration staff and the local welfare agency, actions on overlooked cases in the fall of 1989 raised the cumulative rate of intake completion by about six percentage points.

The particularly high rate of intake compliance achieved in Camden, according to program staff, may have been promoted by the convenience of the demonstration office.  In Camden ,the demonstration office was only a block from the Income Maintenance offices, whereas at the other sites the two offices were at substantial distances.  Camden staff believe that the conveniently close locations of the two offices made attendance at the intake session more manageable for the teenage participants, who were already practiced in finding their way virtually to the door of the demonstration program office.

Despite the persistent and often protracted efforts required to bring teenage parents in for the first program contact, and initial sensitivities about imposing sanctions, program staff have concluded that enforcement of the mandatory participation requirement is an important element of helping the target population.  Focus groups with participants and staff reports, have consistently highlighted examples of teenage parents who were initially very reluctant to enter the program and resisted, but who became enthusiastic and grateful participants once they became acquainted with program staff, the available services, and the opportunities the program could open up for them.

In addition to adopting a policy of mandatory participation and procedures for adhering to it, other program practices can help to reduce obstacles to intake attendance.  Program staff have described the following program features that helped to promote attendance at intake in the demonstration:

  1. Accommodating teenage parents school schedules.  About 40-48 percent of the demonstration participants in the three sites were attending school at intake.  Although school attendance is grounds for JOBS exemption, states may still wish to promote voluntary participation of teenage parents who are in school.  Initial program contacts with teenage parents still attending school can be promoted in several ways:
    1. Some initial sessions can be scheduled in the late afternoon after school hours (although site staff hesitate to use this approach in winter months when participants would have to return home in darkness, and union work rules may affect the feasibility of this approach);
    2. When referred teenage parents fail to show up for their first appointment and contact the staff, subsequent appointments can be scheduled with consideration for their current school schedules.  For example, in some instances participants who did not want to miss school were rescheduled for intake during a school vacation, even if this meant a longer delay than implied by the schedule of weekly intake sessions; and
    3. Contacts with school officials can be made to arrange for treatment of attendance at the program as an excused absence.
  2. Providing on-site child care.  The demonstration intake session entailed extensive data collection and basic skills testing -- activities which correspond to aspects of the assessment process that teenage parents will go through in the JOBS program.  These activities require that the teenage parents be able to concentrate.  All of the demonstration programs had some provision for watching participants' children -- special child care staff and space, or less formal assignments of other staff -- while they attended the initial session.  Staff found it useful to have on-site care arrangements, because instructing teenage parents not to bring their children to the initial session would create a simple excuse for not attending, and some teenagers would in any event ignore such instruction.

    Program staff viewed on-site child care as particularly important with teenagers; they often were reluctant to leave their very young babies to attend intake.  It may not be practical (or necessarily useful) to provide ongoing onsite care for all participants attending later stages of program activity, which may be conducted at dispersed locations, but some form of on-site care for people attending their first program appointment contact can at least promote initial entry to the program.  The same on-site facility can be used by clients at later stages when they attend appointments or classes at the program offices.

  3. Notifying the teenage parent's mother.  For both legal and programmatic reasons, the demonstration programs sent two separate notices when the teenage parent was a dependent child in an AFDC case:  one to the teenage parent, and one to the case head.  Notice to the case head was required, since failure of the teenage parent to respond could lead to a reduction in the case grant.  In addition, program staff reported that participants' mothers often played an important role in motivating (or undermining) the teenage parent's response and commitment to the program.  Informing the participant's parent about the program, its requirements, and its services was thus an important first step in trying to gain the cooperation and support of the teenage parent's mother.

Making the Initial Program Contact Productive

When teenage parents appear for their first appointment with the program, they come with a variety of problems, strengths, and attitudes that can serve as a foundation for success in the program, or that must be overcome for them to participate in and benefit from the program.  The first contact between the teenage parent and the program is an important first step; it can establish in the participant's mind a positive or negative perception of the program, and it can provide important information to program staff about the participant.  The demonstration experience underscored the following important lessons.

  1. Make initial meetings as informal and unbureaucratic as possible.  Although intake staff made it clear that program participation was mandatory, they tried to make this statement part of a broader message that the participants can make something of their lives and that program staff are going to help them do so.  All three demonstration programs had pleasantly appointed offices separate from the welfare agency locations; this separation helped, in the longer run at least and possibly at the first meeting, to distinguish the program case management staff from the income maintenance staff, of whom many participants had negative views.
  2. Use group meetings to break down isolation.  Many teenage parents suffer from severe social isolation and lack of family or peer support.  Group sessions at intake (and later), in the opinion of program staff, were useful in helping new participants begin to see themselves as having something in common with others and to form supportive relationships with others.
  3. Be clear about appointments for subsequent program activity.  At the conclusion of the first program contact, program staff should be clear about expectations and promote rapid involvement in the program.  Rapid involvement in program activities is important, to maintain or stimulate motivation.  Delaying program activities undermines participant commitment and involvement, according to program staff.  Delays can be minimized if all new participants are given a definite appointment for some substantive program activity (e.g., workshops on parenting, nutrition, family planning) when they leave their intake session.
  4. Make immediate assignments to case managers.  Assignments to case managers should be made at the initial session and if possible personal introductions should be provided to help establish relationships.  Particularly for teenagers, it is important to stress that the program consists of people who can help, rather than a bureaucracy.  If new participants are assigned and introduced to a case manager when they attend their first program session, there may be a better chance of getting them to view the program from the start as a source of help rather than a faceless bureaucracy.