Healthy Babies Project

Caring for High-Risk, Low-Income, Pregnant Teens

Healthy Babies Project | May 2015


DC is a city of juxtaposition. Here the powerful and powerless share sidewalks. Luxury developments towering over historic row houses. The highest concentration of graduate degrees meets an adult illiteracy rate of 49% in Wards 5, 7, and 8. 

Everyone knows that cycles can be hard to break—especially generational cycles and even more so those involving teen pregnancy, abuse, or addiction. It takes great conviction and incredible willpower to deviate from the examples set for us: To choose Other.

And yet that’s what the remarkable young women at Healthy Babies Project are trying to do—to make the absolute most of a tremendously hard situation. 

Many of these girls have been lied to, abandoned, and abused. They have each bravely delivered a baby life into the world and are doing their level best to provide safety and stability—despite their own stories and circumstances.

These are girls who are rising above and their children will rise on their tide. And we can help them. 

Teen Pregnancy in DC

Across the United States, teen pregnancy rates have fallen to historic lows. In Washington, DC, it is no different. The District experienced a 20% decline in teen pregnancy rate from 2008, and a 57% decline from the peak year of 1988. This is considerable success when you look at DC as a whole.

Hbp Dc Ward Map

If we were to look at DC’s eight wards, however, we’d see a much different story. You can essentially draw a line of division between teen pregnancy rates – a line that follows the Anacostia River, Washington’s historic geographic divide between the “have” and the “have nots.”

Teen pregnancy rates fall in consistent cadence in Wards 1 through 6  (those west of the Anacostia River) from 2006 until today—approximately 55 per year.1 But in Wards 7 and 8 – those known for low-income, oft-neglected neighborhoods – the teen pregnancy numbers never fall below 200 per year.

You cannot discuss teen pregnancy in Washington, DC without discussing the poverty cycle as it is both a cause and a result of poverty. For women who live in poverty, the lack of education and access to health resources contributes to increased chances for unintended pregnancies.

Young women who become pregnant are more likely to drop out of high school. Roughly 25 percent go on welfare within the first three years of their child’s birth.2 According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 5 births to teen mothers is a repeat birth.3 In fact, teen moms are more likely to have children who become teen moms themselves.

The cycle of poverty perpetuates.

Half of all teen births in the district are to teens in wards 7 and 8.

Beating the Odds

At a certain point, statistics turn to stereotypes. So for a young woman who finds herself facing an unintended pregnancy, it is assumed that her life will be one of hardship and struggle and that her child will face similar situations. At another point, stereotypes begin to shape self-efficacy.

“All I kept thinking to myself was, ‘Vanessa, you’re a failure,” said a young DC mom in testimony before the DC Council Committee on Health. “I worried that by becoming a teen mother I would never be good enough to do anything.”

Young women in DC often perceive their pregnancies as failures. When you know the odds are stacked against you, it’s hard to see the way out. 

The Second Battle

Of the multitude of efforts that exist to address teen pregnancy, prevention is probably one of the most widely practiced. Teen pregnancy prevention programs are used in schools, in medical facilities, and in social change marketing campaigns across the United States.  In 2010, Congress funded a Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program to provide millions of dollars in grants for these prevention-focused programs.

Of children placed into foster care in DC in 2009, 76% were born to teen parents.

DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

But these prevention efforts are just one piece of the puzzle, particularly for young women in the District’s poorest neighborhoods. Young pregnant women and teen moms need the same basic support older moms do: pre- and post-natal health care, someone to talk to about post-partum depression, programs to educate them about infant care. 

Women in DC’s underserved Wards don’t have access to even this basic level of support. They don’t receive the postpartum care that they need. As a result, Washington, DC has one of the nation’s highest low birth weight rates (38% higher than the national average).4

Some don’t know how to care for infants. Others grew up in cycles of abuse or neglect. And so children born to teen parents are more likely to spend time in foster care. Of the children in foster care in DC in 2009, 76% were born to teen parents, compared to 24% born to those 20 years old and older.

Many young women face domestic abuse and need safe housing. Others need substance abuse support, mental health services, educational support, job skills training, and employment.

If 1 in 5 births to teen moms are repeat births, then perhaps this calls for a new kind of prevention effort—one focused on young moms in need of assistance and care.

Throwing a Lifeline

Women, babies, and families have the best chance for health and well-being when all their needs are addressed. It’s a big lift, one that not many individuals or organizations are willing to take on; the numbers are high and the challenges big. But behind each pregnancy is not a number, but a story – a story of unlikeliness, of life and dignity, of human encounter, of dreams and fears.

An unintended pregnancy doesn't have to be the end of the story. It can be the beginning.

Map Graphic:

I Am A Child That Had a Child

By Desiree, Teen Participant, Healthy Babies Project

I was 18-years-old when I found out I was pregnant with my son, David. I was happy and full of joy, but I was also scared about how I was to tell my parents, how to tell my family, and I wondered almost every night how was I going to take care of this innocent child. 

In the beginning, I didn't have much support. My family wouldn't speak to me. My child’s father wanted me to have an abortion. He said we weren't ready. After a few months everyone came around, though. My mother made sure I ate everyday. My child’s father became understanding and supportive of my needs. I felt like my family welcomed me back in to their lives again.

Still, I had a lot of questions and fears: How would I provide for David? How could I include him in my dreams? Where were we going to live? How would I finish school? Was I making the right decisions? How will I feed him? Where could I get more support where people understood me? How could I raise a child when I was still a child myself? Would I be a good mother?

I cried a lot, wondering what life would be like. 

I was still in high school at the time. Everyone stared. I heard whispers. I was always tired, but I made it through my first year. When school started again the following Fall, I had a hard time maintaining my grades because I didn't have anyone to watch my child. It became really hard trying to take care of a sick child and attend school.

I am a child that had a child and am doing everything to make life better for the both of us. I ask for no pity, but guidance.

Desiree, Teen Participant, Healthy Babies Project

I had a babysitter, but at the last minute she told me she wasn’t going to be able to keep my child anymore. So I had to find another way. I tried to put him in to daycare, but it took about 6 weeks. Once my son got in daycare, he became very sick, which caused me to miss a lot of classes and also caused me to fail my classes.

Having a child, you learn things are not about you anymore. I gave up some of my dreams. I wanted to go away for college. I wanted to keep my old job and make enough money to find an apartment and buy a car. I wanted to go to summer school the summer I had David. I wanted to do a lot before I had a child, like travel the world, but a lot of my dreams got put on hold because my bundle of joy needed a part of my life, too.

Finding Healthy Babies Project

One day, I was talking to my best friend about attending a parenting class, as I was looking for help to get things for my son. She told me Healthy Babies gives young mothers cribs, car seats, and clothes. So I said, “Let’s walk up there so I can talk to someone,” and we did. The next month, I started to attend their classes and I have loved going ever since that day. I felt welcomed, loved and supported.

They offered a yoga class and a black parenting class. They gave me a chance to get little things I needed for my son with my TPEP bucks: Clothing, pampers, wipes, baby shoes, milk, a car seat…everything. All I had to do was attend class and participate.

I learned a lot from my peers; they really taught me what type of mother I wanted to be. We all had different opinions on raising our children and different things we wanted to do with our children, so we gave each other tips and ideas to add to our own. Our teachers, Ms. Ruth and Ms. Kahlil, were there to guide us towards improvement.

In the beginning, I had no support, no help, no guidance. Healthy Babies became my support system – I could go there, cry, and talk to someone. They became a part of my life when I thought I had no family and friends to support me. Most teen moms don’t have any support.

Moving Forward

I want to be a great mom. I want my son to know whatever I have planned is for the best of both of our futures. This summer I’m starting the Healthy Babies housing program. I plan to attend summer class and get an internship in my field and then graduate with an accounting degree. I want my child to have the best education. In 5 years, I want to own my own house. I want it to be somewhere safe with a lot of open land.

All teen moms are not the same, though it’s never easy. NO mother's job is easy. I tell all teen moms, “Stay strong, have faith, show courage, be proud of yourself, have confidence that you would be the best mother ever to live on the face of the earth. Show your child a new life, something you thought you could never experience.

I also tell them that when they become a mother they can no longer look at the world with the eyes of a child and look to party, fight, do drugs, fight over a man, or let a man beat on them because their children see and hear everything.  I see many of the girls struggle, but we help each other out and hold each other accountable in the program.  We have formed a bond – a circle of sisters at Healthy Babies.

The program staff tells us not to listen to the noise of the world telling us – that our children are doomed because some of us are single parents.  They tell us that our children will look at us and follow in our path, so make our paths focused on our education or whatever our dreams may be.

So, my message is that I am not a statistic. When you look at me, see me and see my son with eyes of SUCCESS! Send that out into the universe, and we will catch it!

Healthy Babies

For 25 years, Healthy Babies Project has been caring for high-risk, low-income pregnant and parenting teens.

The District of Columbia has among the highest infant mortality rates and low birth weight rates in the nation. In target wards, infant mortality averages 15.1 per 1,000 live births (compared with 6.4 per 1,000 nationwide) and low birth weight averages 13% (compared with 8.3% nationwide). The Healthy Babies Project (HBP) canvasses DC’s poorest neighborhoods and identifies pregnant women with no access to health care, educational, or social services opportunities. HBP connects these pregnant women with one-on-one support to have healthy babies and build productive lives.

Small Beginnings

Dolores Farr, a retired nurse, believed that by offering prenatal services to expectant women and their families she could reduce the dangerously high infant mortality rates and help build stronger family units.

In 1990, the Healthy Babies Project was founded in an effort to reach those women and families who would otherwise fall through the cracks.  Many substance abusing and homeless women are not eligible for various forms of assistance, but Dolores Farr believed these women are exactly the women most in need of a helping hand.

Now led by Executive Director, Regine Elie, Healthy Babies reaches out to high-risk, low-income, pregnant and parenting women, men, and families and bringing them to care.  The agency has been particularly effective in reaching the underserved in Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8.

Teen Parent Empowerment Program

In 2003, as the number of teen pregnancies rose year after year, Healthy Babies started a three-phase Teen Parent Empowerment Program (TPEP). TPEP has been particularly effective in helping teen clients have healthy pregnancies, experience excellent birth outcomes, and plan and implement the next step to a productive future — whether it is graduating from high school, completing a GED, attending trade school or college, entering the work force, or joining the military.

Home Visiting Program/Family Support Program

Healthy Babies’ Home Visiting and Family Support Program facilitates access to health care, health education, and practical support through personal, hands-on, home visits to pregnant and postpartum women (with a nurse or social worker). It serves families during pregnancy and until children are three years old.

Staff members seek out pregnant women in beauty parlors, shopping centers, crack houses, and liquor stores, making a special effort to bring substance abusers into the program.

The Petra Foundation

Developing Dads 

This weekly support and counseling program equips men to be effective fathers. Developing Dads also provides employment and education referrals, parenting training, substance abuse counseling, and case management services.

Confident Parenting 

The country’s first culturally-adapted parenting skill-building program for parents of African-American children, Confident Parenting equips parents with the tools needed to parent their children responsibly. 

Holistic Family Care 

Healthy Babies Project is not only concerned about the attention given to an expectant mother and her developing baby, but all members of her family. It truly takes a village, after all! HBP helps mothers and their families identify available services and resources, such as:

  • Pregnant mothers exercise programs
  • Pregnancy testing
  • Family planning counseling
  • Risk assessment
  • Case management
  • Home visitation
  • Confidential family counseling
  • Crisis intervention and management
  • Mental health screenings and counseling
  • Emergency services
  • Substance abuse screenings and referrals
  • Baby Book-A-Month (for babies and expectant parents)
  • Prenatal Education and Support Group
  • Referrals to onsite Child Development Services
  • Individual Care Plans for enrolled families
  • Family Fun Nights

If you know a pregnant District resident age 12-21, encourage her to learn more about Healthy Babies and the Teen Parent Empowerment Program. There is help and there is hope! Spread the word!

Changed Forever

By Jacob Marsh, Healthy Babies Project Staff

The staff at Healthy Babies Project go into neighborhoods for home visits to help these young people in places where carry-outs refuse to deliver and even police hesitantly patrol. 

Hbp Jacob Marsh

Jacob Marsh, Staff

I grew up in northeast DC, just down the street from Trinidad Avenue and adjacent to a corner that was labeled a ‘red zone.’ Just about all of the friends I grew up with did not fare with the area as well as I did. But I was lucky. I have both parents and a lot of siblings who not only cared about me but also kept me busy.

But just because my hands have always been pretty full does not mean I have been separated from the troubles in DC, such as violence, HIV, and teen pregnancy. Throughout high school, I saw countless young ladies fall in love with guys who were usually 4-5 years older – and then become pregnant. I thought these guys used their age to attract girls. Then one summer I worked at a little agency on 17th Street called Healthy Babies Project and learned that these guys can be a serious threat to girls.

At Healthy Babies Project, I saw the epidemic of teen pregnancy and the raw number of young teens coming in for pregnancy and HIV tests. There is a serious lack of guidance for these young people. DC is a very economically polarized city. You can see it for yourself when you cross the 11th Street Bridge from Pennsylvania Avenue and travel into Anacostia. I say this to note that here in DC, either you have it good, or you don’t, and a lot of young black teens in the nation’s capital don’t. When you don’t have a place to live or your house is not a place you want to be because of poor conditions, then you turn to one of the most notorious parental figures this world has ever had…the streets. And the streets have nothing to offer but sex, drugs, and violence.

I’m considered to be a true Washingtonian—I was born here and have grown up here, but I’m faced with a major dilemma. Will I raise my children here? I don’t want to move.  Although I am confident that I will raise my child to be aware and make good choices, I realize that peers can be even more of an influence than parents. This is frightening. I have to hope my child gets the right message, even if the cool kid is a hustling street dude or the mean girl builds a reputation for being promiscuous but makes it seem like “the thing” to do.

But what about the kids that don’t have a father or mother to care, or who grow up in a single parent home, or who grow up homeless? They won’t get the attention they need to make good choices. We need agencies such as Healthy Babies Project—they provide essential guidance in countless lives. 

I’ve seen the Healthy Babies Project literally help turn lives around. 

This is an excerpt from Jacob Marsh’s speech to the DC City Council at the DC Youth Hearings in June 2011. 

Learning to Be a Responsible Dad

By Dionte, Healthy Babies Participant

It’s one thing to find an agency to help you, but Healthy Babies staff is different—they became friends who walked beside me every step of the way. HBP has made a significant change in my life; they help people like me to be leaders and role models for our children.

My fiancée and I went to Healthy Babies to take a pregnancy test. Together, we prepared for our daughter to be born. Becoming a father is a humbling and growing experience. My fiancée was nineteen years old when we got pregnant—a high school graduate with plans to attend the University of the District of Columbia. 

I am forever grateful for the Healthy Babies Project for making a difference in my life—a young man who is trying to be responsible for his new family.

The HBP staff provided both of us with counseling and support. For example, my fiancée was on bed rest towards the end of her pregnancy and staff members picked her up and drove her to her prenatal appointments to ensure that our daughter was born healthy. 

Healthy Babies taught me the correct way to discipline my child, how to care for my child, and most of all – for me personally – to provide for my child. I am a college student with a part-time job, classes, and apprenticeship, which together is more than a full-time schedule. Yet, in working with HBP, I chose this schedule to make me stronger and help me become more responsible. 

I am forever grateful for the Healthy Babies Project for making a difference in the life of a young man who is trying to be responsible for his new family. I pray that many more people become involved with Healthy Babies Project, which helps those often ignored. 

I’ve spent enough time at Healthy Babies to know that more then half of the young women sleep in different places every night – even on buses. From experience I can tell you that being young and pregnant is hard—to not have a place to lay your head from one day to the next is even harder. Healthy Babies Project made it possible for me to set goals and overcome—and I am forever grateful.

Kendra, Healthy Babies Participant

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Editor's Note

Healthy Babies Project is doing tremendous good in our city. Is there a clearer way to break cycles of generational poverty than to care for pregnant and parenting teens in our neighborhoods? Every action of concern and care impacts AT LEAST two lives and IMMEDIATELY.

Jacob’s story was so touching to me as he mentioned that through simple observation he knew many of the teens walking through HBP’s doors were sleeping on buses at night. Can you imagine being homeless with an infant at just 16-20 years old?

And Healthy Babies does it all—crisis care, counseling, parenting classes, teen empowerment programs, services coordination and guidance.

Of the hundred local organizations and efforts we have featured through BitterSweet over the past six years, this is most definitely one of the most inspiring.

It takes a village, folks, and these young parents are reaching out for help…no doubt Healthy Babies could use our support.

Thanks for considering what YOU can do!

Kate Schmidgall 2022 color
Kate Sig

Kate Schmidgall

Editor-in-Chief, BitterSweet Monthly

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