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Second Chance Homes

by Kate Sylvester


In 1860, President Lincoln signed a charter creating a home for orphans and "unprotected females" just a few blocks from the White House. While that home, Saint Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home, moved many years ago to the Washington, DC suburbs, it has never closed its doors. Since Lincoln’s time, there have always been mothers and children in need of society’s protection.

While many of the young mothers in Lincoln’s time were war widows, today’s "unprotected females" are young, unmarried adolescent mothers on welfare who have no stable environments in which to raise their children. That is why states and communities are creating "Second Chance Homes."

Second Chance Homes, which are set in either large shared single-family homes or in clusters of apartments, are residential facilities that provide teen mothers with the support they need to become self-sufficient and learn to be good parents. Many are faith-based and keep costs low by utilizing volunteers.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 requires most teen mothers under age 18 to live under adult supervision as a condition for receiving welfare. Recognizing that not all teen mothers have supportive families, the law specified that Second Chance Homes could provide an alternative. The law defined the homes as providing teen parents with supportive and safe living arrangements where they would be required "to learn parenting skills, including child development, family budgeting, health and nutrition, and other skills to promote their long-term economic independence and the well-being of their children."

Since 1996, states and communities have used federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds or state funds to create more homes for these vulnerable young families. Massachusetts and New Mexico were among the first. Since 1999, statewide programs opened in Texas, Rhode Island, Nevada, and Georgia. While proposals are pending in several other states, Michigan has largely failed to take advantage of this effort.

One reason that Second Chance Homes are becoming popular is that they are practical. They are designed to deal with the realities of teen mothers’ lives. Many of these young women have been poorly nurtured and subjected to neglect or physical violence. Studies show that as many as two-thirds were victims of rape or sexual abuse at an early age—crimes often committed by males living in the same household. Many suffer from mental and emotional problems and they are easy prey for older men who want to exploit them.

While the homes differ in structure, they all offer three common elements that teen welfare mothers need to change their lives: socialization; nurturing and support; and structure and discipline. Second Chance Homes offer access to child care, education, job training, counseling, and advice on parenting and life skills. Trained, supportive staff members help residents obtain social services, care for their children, and plan for the future.

And they all offer a genuine social contract. The young mothers must help with household duties, stay in school or job training, and take good care of their children. They must stay drug free and abide by curfews. They learn to manage money and conflicts. In return, they get help with day care, health care and schoolwork. They get protection from violent family members and abusive boyfriends. Most importantly, the teen mothers receive the support of caring adults and lessons in everyday living.

While state-run Second Chance Homes are still fairly new, there are signs of success. In New Mexico, less than one percent of Second Chance Home residents have become pregnant again while living in the homes.

Repeat births represented more than one in five births to teenagers, or approximately 110,000 births in 1998. These births are often closely spaced: Almost one in three teens whose first birth occurred before age 17 has a second birth within 24 months. Research shows that teenagers who have repeat births are less likely to obtain high school diplomas and more likely to live in poverty or receive welfare than those who have only one child during adolescence.

Michigan law currently allows minor teen parents to satisfy the adult-supervised living requirement by living in Second Chance Homes. And the Wayne County Family Independence Agency, using funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, operates five homes that serve 57 teens and 68 children.

But the state can—and should—do more. In 2002, new funding for Second Chance Homes will be available from the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services as part of the agency’s Transitional Living Program for Homeless and Runaway Youth. With a small investment of state dollars, state officials could coordinate the efforts of local social service agencies and faith-based organizations. By helping these groups assess needs in their own communities, identify resources, and design proposals, the state could attract federal funds to create safe havens for many more needy mothers and children.

Second Chance Homes, though new in name, have a long history for good reason. These low cost homes are proving to be an effective means of helping young women become independent, productive citizens and simultaneously providing safe, healthy environments for newborns. As Michigan examines its budget priorities, it should give serious thought to expanding its support of Second Chance Homes. By encouraging faith-based organizations and volunteer assistance, Michigan could see its welfare dollars stretched.


Kate Sylvester is the executive director of Social Policy Action Network, a think-tank in Washington, D.C.


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