Bringing Up Mommy | Youth | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Bringing Up Mommy 

A sobering look inside the Lund Family Center

Published May 9, 2006 at 6:06 p.m.

June is almost here, and in classrooms across Vermont, students are getting edgy, anticipating prom, end-of-the-year field trips and summer plans. At one Burlington school, the students are expecting something much more serious: babies.

Four young women sit around a table in the basement computer lab. Eight Dell PCs line two walls. Tinsel stars and purple Mardi Gras beads sparkle on the exposed pipes that run across the ceiling. A couple of empty infant seats sit on the floor. On the blackboard, someone has written in pink chalk, "Have a cheerful day." The two teachers move between this room and the library down the hall, where the rest of the class is fashioning bookmarks with construction paper.

The girls in the computer lab -- some of whose names have been changed to protect their privacy -- are working on individual assignments. Alexis uses felt markers to create a poster explaining the food cycle in a forest ecosystem. Laura sits at a computer writing a report on osteoporosis. Jeanette frowns and twists her hair as she frets over a math worksheet. Rhonda, who has tucked a cigarette behind her ear and wears fuzzy bedroom slippers, keeps looking up from her algebra.

"What are you doing?" she asks.

"Decimals," Jeanette replies.

"I hate those," Rhonda commiserates.

"I hate it all," her neighbor groans.

Down the hall, a door opens. A staff member calls out, "Margaritas after work!"

"Did you hear that?" Alexis asks.

Rhonda sighs. "Yeah. I wish I wasn't pregnant." In most schools, such a comment would cause a stir. Here it's hardly noted. But a few minutes later, when she remarks, "It feels like my uterus is ripping," everyone looks up.

"Maybe you're having Braxton Hicks," Alexis suggests, referring to the so-called "practice" contractions. "When are you due?"

"Not until July."

"I'm due June 1st," Alexis informs her. And then all four young women lean back and rub their stomachs, comparing sizes.

Welcome to the Lund Family Center. Formerly The Home for Friendless Women, when it opened 115 years ago, in a Victorian mansion on Shelburne Road, unwed ladies came to discreetly give birth and give away their babies. Since 1969, Lund has occupied a blocky brick building at the end of Glen Road, a quiet residential cul-de-sac near the Burlington Country Club. It's still where single 12- to 28-year-olds find sanctuary while they're showing. But that's the least of what they get here.

Ninety-five percent of Lund's 18 current residents, and at least 50 outpatients, are being treated for substance abuse -- mostly cocaine or heroin and other opiates, such as Oxycontin and Bupronorphine. In fall 2002, Lund's nursing staff began coordinating with Fletcher Allen Health Care to provide methadone to their rehabbing clients.

Several of the women have done jail time, or are on probation; caseworkers connect with Vermont's Department of Corrections. Education is a big issue. Many of the clients have dropped out. Lund's teachers coax them back to class. All receive public assistance through the federal welfare-to-work program. On-site Reach-Up workers help the young women plan for self-sufficiency after their 5-year lifetime welfare limit runs out.

Some people might suspect the Lund Center is a front for the anti-abortion movement, a place where vulnerable teens are guilted into carrying pregnancies to term. It's not. Although its 19th-century founders belonged to the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the organization -- now a $4.7 million operation -- has no religious affiliation or political agenda. Lund's pregnancy-prevention panels tell middle and high school students about Planned Parenthood, and maintain a neutral stance regarding abortion.

That said, Lund is Vermont's largest private nonprofit adoption agency. Unlike many organizations, it's willing to work with same-sex couples, single parents and older families. But hardly any of the children it places were born to Lund clients. When young women arrive, they've already decided to keep their babies. Lund's mission is to help those kids by helping their moms.

Education and access to family planning have driven down birth rates among Vermont teenagers in the last 15 years. But entrenched poverty and the increased availability of hard drugs mean that those kids who are having kids are often coping with tougher and more deeply rooted problems than any Lund's staff have encountered before.

Courtney Farrell, who coordinates Lund's Cornerstone substance-abuse program, says the clients she sees were often victims of violence before turning to drugs. Women who use drugs are more apt to engage in unprotected sex. Infants of opiate-addicted mothers become drug-dependent in utero, and need methadone to ease withdrawal after they're born. Later, children of users are more likely to be severely neglected, and to develop learning disabilities such as ADD and ADHD.

In contrast to prevailing approaches, Cornerstone's gender-specific counseling takes into account basic differences between most female and male addicts. For example, "A woman is more likely to harm herself due to anger than a man, who's likely to harm someone else," Farrell notes. "Women are nurturers and don't do a great job of nurturing themselves, especially if they're victims of violence and living in poverty."

The Lund Center is the only place in Vermont where women can get substance-abuse treatment with their babies, and a constellation of other vital services, under one roof. Because child care is on-site, explains Executive Director Barbara Rachelson, "All this can happen without separating the mother from the child."

Maintaining the mother-child bond is essential to successful parenting, experts say. That success is key for intervention when obstacles are multigenerational and self-perpetuating. And birth is the best time to break the cycle, Rachelson believes. "When women are pregnant, it's a window of opportunity to change their lives," she says. While many women aren't motivated to make their own lives better, she explains, "Now they'll say, 'I want something different for my child.'"

Alexis is 17, a high school senior with a sweet, round face and long brown hair. Her pink flip-flops reveal the bright pink polish on her toes. Her 9-month-pregnant stomach forms a sphere the size of a small beach ball. Calm and well spoken, she projects an air of purposefulness and self-confidence. It's easy to see why she's Lund's current go-to girl when a resident is needed to speak at a school about pregnancy prevention, show a visitor the building, or tell her tale to a reporter. Other clients call her "the good girl."

She hasn't always been so together. Growing up in Saratoga, New York, Alexis lived with her mother and didn't really know her father. "He was in and out of jail for DUI and non-payment of child support," she explains. In January 2005, she wasn't getting along with her mother's boyfriend, and moved in with her dad. For a while, she lived the high life there. "He gave me a car and a cellphone and a credit card," she recalls. "I didn't have any rules. I was with my boyfriend every day."

In June, Alexis started seeing Shawn, an 18-year-old high school drop-out. They didn't bother with birth control. She'd been taking the "mini-pill" for cramps since she was 13. Although the dosage wasn't high enough to prevent pregnancy, Alexis says, "I figured I was covered." She figured wrong.

In October, she found out that she was two months pregnant. "My dad said that if I didn't have an abortion I'd have to move out," she relates.

Did she consider that option? "I figured I'd done this myself," she says. "I'm not pro- or anti-abortion for other people, but I couldn't live with it. My mom had an abortion at 16, and my aunt at 18." Plus, Shawn was "very excited" at the prospect of becoming a parent, Alexis adds. "He said, 'We can do it, we're going to make it,' and I was so scared."

She lived with her aunt and continued to attend school for a while. But by December it became clear the arrangement wasn't working, so she and Shawn moved downstate to live with his mother. That didn't work out, either -- the woman is an alcoholic. One day Alexis and Shawn came home and found she'd locked them out.

"I had to call the cops to get my stuff out of her house," Alexis says. With no place else to turn, she took a bus back to Saratoga, where Shawn stayed. From there, her mother drove her to Burlington and checked her into the Lund Center.

It was early January, and they arrived after dark. Lights were on in the dining room, and through the windows Alexis could see chairs stacked on tables and people moving around, she remembers. "I took one look at this place and I said, 'I can't do this.'"

From the outside, the Lund Center is totally nondescript. An American flag hangs over the front door. A small sign instructs visitors to report to the office. Another notice indicates that a building permit is pending.

The agency is in the midst of a capital campaign -- it's raised $1.65 million towards a $3.7 million goal. That money will go mainly to renovating the 1969 facility, which is showing signs of wear and can no longer comfortably accommodate the center's expanded functions. But no oversized thermometer out front measures the drive's progress. And no sign at all identifies the organization or indicates what goes on inside.

House rules no longer require residents to don faux wedding rings before going out in public, as they did 115 years ago. But adjusting to life at Lund still involves internalizing a set of regulations. Residents sign up to use the two washers and dryers in the communal bathroom for one 3-hour slot per week. Mothers must bathe their children each day; the 14 babies and toddlers in residence take turns in the single tub. Use of the two pay phones is restricted to certain hours, and calls can't last more than 15 minutes.

Each woman receives a weekly allowance -- $11 while they're pregnant, $26 after their babies are born -- for things such as laundry detergent and shampoo. On Friday afternoons, the Lund Center van takes the girls shopping at Wal-Mart.

When Alexis first arrived, she shared a room with three other pregnant women. As her due date drew near, she moved into a single. With its institutional bed, desk and bureau, it resembles a college dorm. Framed photos of her with her boyfriend hang over the bed. But a brand-new bassinet sits waiting in one corner, and a changing table is arrayed with baby products still in their packages. Three pristine, pink infant outfits hang from the front. Alexis knows she's having a girl. She and Shawn have decided to name her Annayah Renée.

Days at Lund follow a predictable pattern. Alexis wakes up at 7:15, then checks in with a counselor. Breakfast starts at 7:30. Morning chores last from 8 until 8:15. Then Alexis and other residents step outside to smoke.

Cigarettes are not allowed inside the building or in the presence of children. Moms who want to indulge need to arrange for a babysitter. Asked if any of the rules bother her, Alexis answers without hesitation: "You can smoke at 8:15 a.m. and then not again until 3:15." All the girls smoke, she adds. She stopped when she first got pregnant -- it made her feel sick. But since coming to Lund, she's started up again. "It's the way to socialize," she explains.

Rachelson acknowledges that at an institution dedicated to fostering health, tobacco remains a touchy topic. Anti-smoking posters hang in the hallways, the center offers a smoking-cessation program, and there's been talk of making Lund smoke-free. But for women struggling to get off heroin, smoking is a relatively low-risk behavior. "We don't want to make it impossible for them," Rachelson says.

Classes begin at 8:30 a.m. The New Horizons alternative school, located adjacent to child care in the Lund Center basement, is open to both residents and day students -- only five of the 12 currently enrolled live at Lund. The program runs year-round, with rolling admission. As Education Coordinator Kris Hoffman explains, "Teen pregnancy doesn't know a school year." And traditional schools aren't set up for maternity leaves, nor do they allow students to bring nursing infants to class.

Students either receive a degree from Lund or transfer the credits back to their home high school. Each year Hoffman works with about 14 different high schools to design individual curricula that meet their graduation requirements. Students get hands-on experience with spit-up and diaper wipes by doing a rotation in the child care room. Another advantage of New Horizons: Students can get credit for life skills and parenting classes designed to meet their very real, immediate needs.

In addition to English, science and social studies, Alexis has been taking classes titled "Relationships," "Welcome Home Baby," "Anger Management" and "Road to Self-Sufficiency." She's been working hard to finish by May 12. Unlike most residents, who return to stay at Lund for a while after giving birth, Alexis hopes to have her baby back home, in Saratoga. She plans to move into an apartment there with Shawn before their baby is born, then graduate with her original high school class.

This morning, she puts the finishing touches on her food-chain poster. Then she opens a thick black binder containing schedules and assignments. As Alexis flips through the pages making notations, Hoffman comes in from the library balancing one of the other students' babies on her hip.

She confers with Alexis about her plans for finishing out her senior year. Satisfied that her student will meet her goal, the teacher grins and says, "I'm so proud of you."

"Are you proud of me, too?" asks Rhonda, looking up from her work.

Hoffman assures her that she is.

Her positive response is genuine, but it's also part of the program. "Research indicates that one of the best ways to help teen moms from becoming pregnant again is to have a really affirmative interaction with an adult," Hoffman explains later. "They need to feel important and special for more than just being a teen mom."

At 11:45, she announces that it's lunchtime.

"But I'm not hungry," Rhonda objects.

"It's important for you to have lunch," Hoffman reminds her.

Fifteen minutes later, when the girls line up in the dining room, Rhonda is among them. Serving platters have been set out on a buffet table: overdone roast beef, mashed potatoes, peas, cucumber-and-tomato salad, chicken salad with grapes and almonds, cottage cheese. Just about everyone opts for meat and potatoes.

At 12:25, a residential counselor holds up a plastic container filled with ping-pong balls. Each ball is labeled with a different chore, and the girls draw them at random, beginning with Alexis, because she's the "most pregnant."

She pulls "kitchen girl." After clearing her place, she rinses her plate and stacks it by the sanitizer. Then she ties on a blue apron, slips into disposable plastic gloves, and tunes the radio to a rock station. "Where's the dining room girl?" she then shouts over the music.

The young woman who finally comes to clear the buffet table has blonde hair piled loosely on her head. Sparkly makeup dusts her cheeks, and she's tattooed: a cross on one wrist, and numbers on the back of her neck. "Sorry," she apologizes, setting the first platter of leftovers on the stainless steel counter. "I had to go to the bathroom."

After lunch, clients attend life skills classes, or meet with their social workers and counselors. Since she doesn't have a drug problem and has never been arrested, Alexis' treatment team is smaller than most: social worker, primary counselor, teachers, a nurse, Reach-Up worker and the transition coordinator who's helping her prepare for life immediately after Lund. She had been slated to meet with her transition coordinator this afternoon, and then to visit an area school to talk about teen pregnancy, but her schedule has been adjusted so she can spend the next hour being interviewed for this article.

The conversation takes place in the office of Outreach Coordinator Stephanie Rosenstein. Asked to repeat the story she tells students on school visits, Alexis is momentarily flustered. "I didn't bring my notes," she demurs. But with Rosenstein's encouragement, she tells how she ended up at Lund.

The reality of being pregnant didn't really hit her until she got here and saw all the babies, Alexis says. At first she hated the place, and threatened to leave. But now that she's about to do just that, she can't say enough good things about her stay.

Besides finishing high school and learning how to be a parent, she's been glad to be out of the public eye -- because she's so young, she draws stares. "Being here with other women in the same situation helps me to feel normal," Alexis says. She also appreciates how counseling has helped her meet a goal to improve communication with her mother. Since coming to Lund, she says, she's become closer than ever before to both parents.

"What's it like to be 17 and pregnant?" prompts Rosenstein.

"It sucks," Alexis answers immediately. Her old friends said they'd be there for her, she says, "but they're not. My friends are the girls here." Later she adds, "I missed out on all the teenage stuff and I'm never going to get it back."

Alexis counts herself lucky, though, because unlike a lot of her friends here, she has a supportive boyfriend who's promised to stick around and help raise his child. Shawn is working at McDonald's. After staying home for a while after the baby is born, Alexis plans to return to her previous job, at the call center for Direct TV.

In January, she hopes to begin a 2-year program in accounting. Shawn is supportive of that plan, too, Alexis says. She hopes he'll eventually earn his GED, but adds, "He says, 'At least one of us will make it.'"

"Shawn says he wants lots of kids, like in Cheaper by the Dozen," Alexis relates, rolling her eyes. "When I have my next kid, I hope to have my own home, a college degree and a job."

Her dreams for this baby? Alexis looks pensive. "I just want to be able to provide a healthy life for her and buy her things and not have to struggle," she says, and then amends her answer. "I just want her to be healthy. And I want her to know both her parents when she's growing up."

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Ruth Horowitz


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