Jaqueline Espinal (center) and her boyfriend (left) Ricardo Perez talk with Jaqueline's sister Elizabeth and her boyfriend as they wait to watch a video on how to protect their soon-to-be-born babies from lead poisoning. (Photo by Jean Clough)

Jaqueline Espinal was still wearing her brown leather bomber coat, despite the pressing heat inside the old Logan Square mansion on an unseasonably warm winter day. A slight girl who had just reached her 16th birthday, Jaqueline could easily hide her rounded belly. But it was harder to hide her fears about motherhood.

On Casimir Pulaski Day, Jaqueline came to Casa Central’s Adolescent Parenting Program, in an attic above a noisy preschool, to see if the staff there knew where to get an inexpensive car seat. They reminded her to come to an upcoming workshop on how to establish paternity. Until six months earlier, this was not something she had imagined herself doing on a day off from school.

Jaqueline said she did not mean to get pregnant. And now, even with the baby’s birth just a couple of months away, she remained ambivalent about it. She said she wanted the baby to be healthy, and she wanted a girl so that she could plan her Quinceañera, a party that celebrates a girl’s passage into adulthood on her 15th birthday. A year ago, Jaqueline enjoyed her own Quinceañera.

But she was also filled with anxiety. Like many expectant mothers, she wasn’t sure she’d know what to do when the baby wouldn’t stop crying. She worried her boyfriend would leave her in the years to come. And she was upset about the other ways having her baby could shape her own future.

Because teen parenthood is strongly linked to lifelong poverty, what young women like Jaqueline do in the years after they have babies—determining whether they stay in school, whether they get jobs, whether they become self-sufficient or increasingly dependent on the government—is critically important. Yet, in recent years, teen mothers have been hit hard by budget cuts in Chicago schools. And elements of the 1996 welfare reform law that were supposed to provide more support for teen mothers have backfired, alienating many of those the measures were supposed to help.

This issue is a serious one in Illinois’ Latino community, where the number of teens giving birth rose by 5 percent from 1997 through 2002, even as the overall number of teens having babies dropped by 18 percent, according to the most recent data available from the Illinois Department of Public Health. At the same time, Hispanic women in Illinois between the ages of 16 and 19 are more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to be out of school, and they are the least likely to be receiving cash assistance from welfare.

And, while those outside the community assume that tight-knit families pick up the slack, many teen mothers say that their families, while helpful, expect them to assume the primary responsibility for taking care of their babies and sometimes ask them to move out.

“The numbers are alarming,” said Maria Socorro Pesqueira, executive director of Mujeres Latinas en Acción, a social service agency in Pilsen that offers a program that tries to improve communication between mothers and teenage daughters. She cited a report showing that, for Latino teens, the two biggest indicators of future poverty are dropping out of school and becoming pregnant as teenagers.

“This will have consequences for the future, not only for the girls themselves, but for the entire Latino community,” she said.

Pesquiera and others who work with teen mothers say that Latino families, while disappointed, will often rally around mothers and babies, and do what they can to assist them. Yet Pesquiera said that isn’t always easy, because the new grandparents are often struggling economically themselves. Fifty-two percent of the 1.4 million Latinos in the six-county Chicagoland region were born outside the United States, and more than 70 percent of those immigrants are not citizens, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. “They are working hard to make it here, and it is not easy for them,” she said.

Few of the grandparents can completely take over parenting the new babies, said Michelle Morales, a program coordinator at the Alternative Schools Network, a nonprofit that provides technical support and resources to community-based education programs. From 2000 to 2002, she was principal of an alternative school serving many parenting teenagers in Humboldt Park. “Once the teenagers have babies, the families feel like they are adults,” she said.

This is exactly the way Jaqueline’s parents responded. Soon after Jaqueline told her mother that she was pregnant, her mother decided Jaqueline should go live with her 15-year-old boyfriend Ricardo Perez, his two brothers and his father. “She kind of kicked me out,” Jaqueline said.

But, while she was sad and a little startled that her mother told her to leave, Jaqueline had known from the beginning that her mother would not take the news well. Jaqueline’s mother was young and unwed herself when she left a poor rural village in Mexico to come to Chicago to give her children a better life.

Many of her mother’s hopes hinged on Jacqueline: She’s not only the first of her mother’s three children born in America, but she is also considered the “smart” one in the family. Her mother is a school bus attendant and her stepfather works 12-hour days as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. Her parents work hard to pay their bills, so she knew her baby would add an economic burden to the family.

Jaqueline’s news also came just two months after her 18-year-old sister, Elizabeth, announced she was pregnant. While their mother wasn’t happy about that pregnancy, either, the blow was softer because Elizabeth is a little older and her 19-year-old boyfriend Victor makes what they considered good money—$500 every two weeks—washing dishes in a suburban Baker’s Square restaurant. Jaqueline’s boyfriend, Ricardo, is too young to have a worker’s permit and makes $75 every two weeks doing odd construction jobs.

By March, the grandmother had grudgingly come to accept the situation, setting her mind to doing what she could to help. Elizabeth, who had moved in with Victor’s family, was allowed to come back home, bringing Victor, who began chipping in for the family’s rent.

Meanwhile, Jaqueline was trying to get used to living in a house full of men. She is still in school and prides herself on barely ever missing classes throughout her pregnancy. On her time off, she often watches her mother cook, figuring that if she can cook well, she has a better chance of hanging onto Ricardo.

For now, she’s worried that he’ll go out with his friends and leave her alone in the house with the baby. And in the long run, she’s worried that he will disappear as so many young fathers do. After all, her mother told her that not many men want women who come with babies.

“I’m scared that [Ricardo] won’t support me,” she said.

* * *

From 1986 to 1991, a surge in the number of teenagers having babies nationwide caused widespread alarm. Much of the attention focused on black teenagers, who at the time had the highest teen birth rates. But a decade later, many advocates and officials were declaring success: The teen birth rate in the United States is the lowest it’s been in two decades and the decline has been most dramatic among black teenagers.

Now the highest teen birth rates belong to Latino teenagers. Illinois has the 10th-highest rate of births to Hispanic teens in the country, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a Washington D.C.-based group that tracks teen pregnancy and provides support for those organizations working to prevent it.

In neighborhoods where Latinos constitute more than 50 percent of the population, in 2002 an average of 153 babies were born to teen mothers, compared to 109 in mostly black areas and 28 in areas that are mostly white, shows a Chicago Reporter analysis of Chicago Department of Public Health data.

Last year, Latino state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Cynthia Soto, passed a bill establishing the Hispanic/Latino Teen Pregnancy Prevention and Intervention Program. It was supposed to give grants to local agencies to teach teens about birth control, but, in the midst of a state budget crisis, lawmakers didn’t fund it. This year, the Northwest Side Democrat is trying to get a bill passed requiring the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois Department of Human Services to report to the General Assembly the number of Latino teens giving birth and a list of the programs getting money to serve this population.

To keep the issue at the forefront, Soto is holding hearings across the state on the issue of teen pregnancy in the Latino community. She is most interested in making sure that culturally sensitive programs stressing abstinence and prevention are available in her community. “What we need is to gear more toward education,” said Soto, who is a Mexican-American. “In our community, it is taboo to talk about sex. I am not saying that young kids should have sex, but they are having it, and we need to talk about it.”

Many teen mothers say they were told having sex outside of marriage was immoral, and some say they were given very little detailed information about birth control.

Jaqueline said her mother and the priest in her Catholic church simply told her it was wrong to have sex. A class in school might have mentioned birth control, she said, and her stepfather warned her that getting pregnant young would “mess up her life.” But she said no one had told her what kind to use and where to get it.

So when Ricardo, an outgoing teenager with bright, coffee-colored eyes, didn’t insist on using birth control, she didn’t, either. “I guess it was just the moment,” she said.

Cultural factors might also be influencing Latino teens not to use birth control. At a hearing held two years ago by Soto, presenters pointed to novelas, Spanish-language soap operas, which promote the idea that, if you really love someone, you will give them a child. Others at the hearing said that the Mexican Quinceañera tradition might give young women the impression that at 15 they are ready to become mothers.

In addition, some new immigrants have to work as many as three jobs to make ends meet, leaving little time for them to help their children navigate the teenage years, and a lot of their teenagers grow hungry for attention and spend time alone without any monitoring.

* * *

Once pregnant or parenting, Latino teenagers often end up in a “vast no man’s land–¦” out of school, in precarious housing and, since 1997, at least, unable or unwilling to turn to the government for anything but medical cards and some baby formula, said Ellen Chavez, the director of early childhood development programs for Casa Central, the Humboldt Park-based social service agency that recently started its adolescent parenting program.

The Chicago Public Schools doesn’t keep track of how many pregnant or parenting teenagers drop out. But 35 percent of Hispanic females in Chicago between the ages of 16 to 19 are out of school, compared with 25 percent of all females in this age group, according to a September 2003 report prepared by Northeastern University in Boston for Chicago’s Alternative School Network.

And teen mothers have “exceptionally low probabilities” of completing high school education, according to “Kids Having Kids,” a book published by the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based research organization.

At the same time, the number of Latino teen parents receiving cash assistance from welfare in Illinois dropped by 88 percent from July 1997 to February of this year. Statewide, only 96 Latino teen parents are currently receiving welfare money, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.

The immigration status of many Latina teenage mothers and their families plays a big role in the resources they do or do not access. Legally, undocumented women can receive basic medical care during their pregnancies and participate in the Women, Infants & Children program, which provides nutritious food to pregnant women and children under the age of 5.

But teen mothers who are citizens or legal immigrants are entitled to receive food stamps, and cash assistance, if they can meet certain requirements. A provision in the 1996 welfare reform act stated teen mothers who are living with their mothers must be part of their mothers’ cases.

This has prevented some of these teens from applying for benefits, because while the teens may be legal immigrants or citizens, their mothers may be undocumented. Although teens in those situations are still legally entitled to benefits, many mothers don’t want their daughters to tell the government about their family’s immigration status, and many teens are hesitant to press such questions.

Lawrence Benito, director of Newcomer Initiatives for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said that caseworkers in welfare offices have never been required to alert immigration agents when they are approached by undocumented immigrants, but that doesn’t ease the families’ fear. He added that the welfare reform act also included several provisions limiting benefits to legal immigrants, and, while none of these were particular to teen parents, it left a strong impression in immigrant communities. “They got the message that they were not welcome at welfare offices,” he said.

Benito added the new state Human Services administration, appointed last year by Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is interested in reaching out to immigrant communities. Benito’s organization received $1.4 million, which it has doled out to community-based groups to translate public benefit documents and help immigrants better access health care.

* * *

A high school diploma is one of the few things that can change the fortunes of a teen mother who comes from a low-income family, and some college education is even better, said Leslie Dominguez-Santos, policy manager at the Heartland Alliance’s Mid-America Institute on Poverty. High school graduates earn $30,516 on average, compared to $21,314 for non-high school graduates, according to the Employment Policy Foundation, a public policy research and educational foundation based in Washington, D.C.

But, in the last year, the Chicago Public Schools has cut several key programs for teen mothers. And many say teachers and administrators don’t understand their needs.
Celeste Garrett, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Public Schools, said one of the “hallmarks of this administration is its concern for parenting students.”

“We’re deeply committed to this group,” she said. “But how much we can do depends on funding, and right now we’re awaiting word from Springfield about how much we will have for these girls.”

Garrett said the Chicago Public Schools does a day of lobbying in Springfield in late April, and parenting students will be part of the group trying to convince lawmakers to invest in programs serving their needs.

School officials know what works. Six years ago, CEO Paul Vallas created programs in the high schools called Cradle to Classroom. During their lunch periods or between classes, pregnant and parenting students could duck into the program’s headquarters, usually located in a classroom in their schools, and get referrals for everyday needs, such as a nearby babysitter. Also, workers called parent advocates conducted weekly home visits with the girls and their babies to see how everything was going and answer their questions.

According to researchers, more than 90 percent of the program’s participants graduated from high school. Nationwide, about 36 percent of all pregnant or parenting teenagers drop out of school, according to a 1999 federal report.

But, this year, a budget problem forced the schools to lay off about 200 parent advocates in Cradle to Classroom programs. The schools hired back half of those workers, said Ron Whitmore, officer of early childhood education, which oversees the school system’s Cradle to Classroom program. As of February, 1,062 students were being served
—45 percent fewer than last year and about half what 2003’s budget projected. The program’s waiting list has 206 names.

Whitmore said the program was scaled back because of “management issues” and declined to elaborate. Currently, he said, a think tank of early childhood experts is meeting to talk about how to create a better program next year. With that budget currently in the works, Whitmore said he doesn’t know whether he will be able to hire back the lost workers, but he does not anticipate any more reductions.

The cuts come on the heels of another blow to teen mothers. The Board of Education, citing low enrollment, decided last year to close Arts of Living and Nikola Tesla Alternative high schools, which have served a total of about 100 pregnant girls.

At The Theodore Simpson Academy for Young Women, the lone remaining school exclusively serving pregnant and parenting teens, about 200 students participate in programs that teach things like good health practices and life skills. Nurses monitor their health and a social worker helps them find community organizations that can assist them in getting what they need to stay in school.

The loss of Arts of Living and Telsa hit teen mothers hard, said Marisol Morales, director of the Family Learning Center, a small independent education program in Humboldt Park. While Arts of Living and Telsa might have only served a small number of students at a time, they provided a temporary refuge from large crowded buildings and teachers who don’t seem to understand things like morning sickness, she said. Then, unable to keep school work together through pregnancy, the girls become more likely to drop out.

Nancy Torruella, 17, said she decided to drop out of Kelvyn Park High School in the Belmont-Craigin neighborhood because she did not feel safe. First she worried about her baby as she pushed her way through the hallways, where some 1,900 students rush from one class to another. Then a girl who ate lunch at the same time she did challenged Nancy to a fight.

Nancy, who’s less than 5′ feet tall, said she told a counselor, who allowed her to change her lunch period. But, beholden to the searing hunger that comes with pregnancy, she was starving by the time her later lunch period came around.

“My sister would get me some donuts and milk, but I couldn’t eat in class, so I would be late, but then I would get in trouble for being late,” she said.

Nancy said she didn’t intend to drop out of school; she just stopped going one day and then the next, until eventually she didn’t go back at all.

Those who work with teen parents say they often drop out after encountering seemingly small, technical problems. Teachers, for instance, give them trouble for asking for so many hall passes to go to the bathroom. Or they spend the entire morning throwing up, only to come to school and get scolded for being tardy.

Once their babies are born, the teens’ reason for dropping out usually becomes the lack of child care. Only five of the city’s 80 public high schools have infant-toddler centers that take the babies of students. Of the five, four are high schools whose populations are 95 percent black, and one, Orr Community Academy in Humboldt Park, has a student population that is 85 percent black and 15 percent Latino.

Most teenagers who want to stay in school should be able to access state child-care subsidies. But in Latino communities child-care providers for infants are particularly scarce compared to the demand for them. Many teens also wrongly believe that undocumented immigrants can’t be paid by the subsidy program.

Among the teenagers interviewed by the Reporter, the biggest difference between those who stayed in school and those who didn’t is whether their mothers were available to watch their babies. But even those with mothers who can babysit said they feel alone in an uphill battle.

Janet Guiterrez, 17, arrived late to a Thursday afternoon teen parent support group at Latino Youth Inc., an organization in Little Village that offers an alternative school and other programs for teenagers. The teen parent support group includes weekly meetings and home visits.

Janet had left her 4-month-old baby with her mother, but brought along her 3-year-old daughter. Even on this cold, rainy day, Janet took her daughter on a bus and walked to get to the meeting.

By the time the two of them arrived, they had wet shoulders and hair. Janet said she makes it a point to come to the group because it is one of the few places where she gets help keeping her hectic life together.

Her daughter, who stays with Janet’s mother on most days, also enjoys coming and looks forward to the social worker who visited their house every month to check up on the family.

For the occasion, Janet has dressed the small girl up in crisp khaki pants and a beige faux-suede jacket. Janet herself wears the blue jogging suit she wore to school, without a coat.
Janet, who’s never been a part of her school’s Cradle to Classroom program, is one of the few young women she knows who has two children and still manages to go to school.

“It’s hard,” she said. “But I keep telling myself that, if you want something in your life and you really want it, you can get it.”

Janet said it infuriates her that her teachers think Latino teen mothers just live with their parents and let them take care of their babies.

Her mother has been a huge support to her, but when Janet got pregnant the second time, she insisted she move in with her daughters’ father.

She appreciates the child care, but trying to do her own homework after picking the children up from her mother’s house is difficult, to say the least. “The girls need my time, too,” she said.

Besides her school and the voluntary parenting program, the other place Janet should be able to go to for help is the local welfare office.

When the welfare reform bill was crafted in 1996, politicians said they wanted to force able-bodied adults off the rolls and into jobs. But, when it came to teenagers, the idea was to prevent pregnancy and, if that did not work, to prepare the young mothers to be self-sufficient adults.

Dominguez-Santos said two-thirds of poor families nationally were started by a teen parent, and half of adult welfare recipients had their first baby in their teenage years. This is the reason lawmakers took time to focus on teen mothers, even though the group has always represented a small portion of all welfare cases.

Named the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the law made several specific demands on pregnant and parenting teenagers who wanted cash assistance: They had to stay in school and live with their parents or in a stable, adult-supervised setting, which research has shown is generally the best environment for young mothers. And most of those under 18 couldn’t open their own welfare cases; instead, they had to be included in their mothers’.

They also had to participate in a Teen Parent Service program. Teen Parent Service resemble Cradle to Classroom and other support programs in that, through casework and support groups, they’re supposed to help teen mothers overcome obstacles that might prevent them from succeeding in school, while educating them on how to care for their babies.

In addition, Teen Parent Service workers advocate for teen mothers when they have problems getting benefits and give their clients additional resources, such as bus fare for going to and from school.

However, as a result of the policies, many teen mothers have simply stopped getting welfare in Illinois and other states, said Lacinda Hummel, senior policy specialist for the Illinois Caucus on Adolescent Health. In 1997, almost 10,000 mothers under 20 years of age got welfare. By February 2004, that number was 1,675, according to the Reporter’s analysis of the Illinois Department of Human Services statistics.

Some teen mothers have heard from their friends and family that there are new rules and do not ask for money if they are not sure whether they meet the criteria, Hummel said. Others do ask and get turned away at the door. A 2002 study by the Chicago-based Center for Impact Research found that one-fourth of teenagers who went to welfare offices to apply were told by caseworkers that they didn’t qualify and simply left.

At the urging of advocates, the new state Human Services administration decided to implement a transitional period in which teens who are 17 and under could get on welfare and then have six months to comply with the rules. Denise Simon, chief of the department’s Bureau of Child and Adolescent Health, said she’s committed to teen mothers and wants those who need cash assistance to be able to access it.

Latina teen mothers might be even less likely than others to push for welfare, said Pesqueira, whose Mujeres Latinas en Acción runs a state-funded program to help immigrants access benefits. Young and somewhat embarrassed by their situation, these mothers often refuse to push for help.

“They are not used to having the door slammed in their face,” she said. “They give up easily.”

Without cash assistance, the young women are often dependent on parents and boyfriends, said Sara Manewith, the director of teen parent and infant development services at Christopher House, a social service agency in Lincoln Park that mostly serves Latino girls. This can lead to trouble if those parents or boyfriends aren’t supportive or, worse, if they are abusive. “There’s no question that [welfare] would give these girls a tremendous leg up. They have nothing—nothing—to call their own,” she said.

Hummel, from the caucus on adolescent health, also points out that Teen Parent Service programs are mandatory only for those who get cash assistance from the government. Hummel said it troubles her that those who don’t are often completely disconnected from the case management offered at Teen Parent Services. And, if they are out of school or not living at home, they’re the ones who need it most. Beyond cash assistance, the local welfare offices can make sure that young parents know about and can access the state’s child-care subsidy program.

Many, however, wind up like Nancy, who was denied cash assistance and gets no government help. This is why, when the social worker from Casa Central approached her about participating in their programs, she jumped at the chance.

But she said the money from welfare would be a saving grace. Her boyfriend, who recently came here alone from Mexico and works at a restaurant, is the only person working in the apartment where they live with her mother, two brothers and sister.
Holding their son, Alex, on a cold mid-March day, Nancy noted that he had a lingering cough, caused by the portable heaters that the family uses to keep the apartment warm. The family does not turn up the gas because it is too expensive.

Janet said she also gets stressed out trying to figure out how to pay for groceries, lights, gas, rent and clothes on the $8.50 an hour her 19-year-old boyfriend makes at a factory. Her family’s tight budget has no wiggle room, and she said she is always worried that, if one bad thing happened—he got laid off or hurt—she’d be in serious trouble.

Janet applied for cash assistance at the local welfare office, but was turned down, she said. Caseworkers told her that she had to be 18 or have her mother open a case for her. Janet was reluctant to ask her mother to take this step. “She does enough for me already.”

Those who work with teen parents say it’s frustrating that program funding focuses primarily on the development of the teen mother’s baby and rarely on the teen mother herself. “It seems to me like society writes these young women off,” said Alma Galvan, who makes home visits for Casa Central’s program. “Once she has a baby, she is considered a lost cause.”

Donna Lowe, a supervisor for New Moms Inc., a Humboldt Park program that runs twice-weekly support groups and a cooperative housing program for young mothers, stressed that these girls are not yet in “a rut, a hole, a ditch they can’t get out of.”

Some are depressed and weary at times, but they are also young, they have energy and they are still holding onto their dreams. The problem, however, is that their dreams are not well defined, nor is the map that they will need to achieve them.

“[The teen mothers that Christopher House works with] have a really stifled ability to imagine their future,” Manewith said. “This is something we really struggle with. We try to expand their imagination. But a lot of times when we talk about the future, we are met with blank stares.”

A few years ago, New Moms Inc. decided to create the Rising Star Program. Teen mothers share their goals with a counselor while an employment and training coordinator outlines what they should do to accomplish those goals. Showing them the small steps, Lowe said, helps ensure they can reach the larger goals.

“Because of the cycle of poverty they are in, sometimes they see nothing but obstacles,” Lowe said. “Our job is to help them see hope and potential.”

At many support groups for teen mothers, the young women seem caught between having very low expectations and having those so high they appear out of reach. For example, one young woman in a literacy-level GED class said she was planning on becoming a marine biologist because she liked dolphins. Another teen mother, who stopped going to school in eighth grade, said she is hoping to get a job at the restaurant where her mother works.

Janet has a pretty clear picture of what she wants to do after high school: to go to college and study child development.

But for Jaqueline and Nancy, the paths are murkier. Both of them are so entrenched in worrying about paying today’s bills, that tomorrow’s ambitions seem distant.

After giving birth to Alex, dropping out of school and later losing a job at a café, Nancy got depressed. Her mother eventually got her out of her rut by convincing her that she could take the GED and then try to get an associates degree.

Nancy said that she’s currently trying to focus on taking care of Alex, who just turned 1. She especially loves reading him the books given to her by Casa Central—he likes the one about puppy dogs best—and marvels at how much time he wants to spend with her.
Meanwhile, Jaqueline is trying to separate her desires for the future from her fears about it.

When Jaqueline came to Casa Central on Casmir Pulaski Day, Ricardo came with her. Sitting next to her, Ricardo said he wasn’t nearly as rattled as Jaqueline by the prospect of having a baby. From the moment he heard, he was excited. “She was the first girl I was serious with, and I like babies,” he said.

He admitted he’s a little anxious about being able to support a family. At 15, he’s too young to get a part-time job that pays even minimum wage. Each month, he gives one $75 paycheck to his dad for rent; the other he shares with Jaqueline. Once he turns 16 in August, his first task will be trying to find a better-paying job.

But he doesn’t see the baby affecting his future the way Jaqueline does. An honors student, he said he debating whether he will join the Army or become a police officer.
When asked how the baby and Jaqueline figure into these plans, he said he didn’t know for sure. “I guess I would feel bad if I had to leave her,” he said.

As Ricardo talked, Jaqueline shyly reached for his hand. She gave different answers about what she might want to do when she gets older. Once, she thought about being a doctor or lawyer.

Now, she said, “I don’t know.”

Kim Evans, Erin Meyer and Mayra Rocha helped research this story.

Sarah Karp

is an associate editor for our sister publication, Catalyst Chicago.