Magazine article The American Prospect

No Parent Left Behind: Often, the Most Effective Efforts to Intervene in the Lives of Disadvantaged Children Start Early-Or Even before They Are Born

Magazine article The American Prospect

No Parent Left Behind: Often, the Most Effective Efforts to Intervene in the Lives of Disadvantaged Children Start Early-Or Even before They Are Born

Article excerpt

GABBY REYES AND MICHAEL Ortiz are sitting on a couch at their house off Chicago's Fullerton Avenue on an October afternoon with their nine-day-old baby, Michael, curled up between them. Their beagle puppy, Bayle, runs across the living room. Despite the cozy domestic moment, family life came upon Reyes and Ortiz as a surprise--and not a welcome one, either.

"We went into a doctor's office, and they're like, 'Oh, congratulations. You're pregnant,'" Reyes says. "I was like, 'No.' I was seventeen."

Ortiz, who is 18, leans forward on the couch. "I was scared," he says.

"I was confused," Reyes adds.

Reyes dropped out of Kelvyn Park High School when she learned she was pregnant. Luckily, a midwife in her doctor's office recommended a doula program. Doula is a Greek word that means, loosely, "female helper" and describes someone who assists a mother before, during, and after childbirth. Hiring a private doula may cost several thousand dollars and is usually the province of wealthy families. But innovative, community-based programs have emerged in Illinois and nine other states, and are designed to serve women like Reyes, who bad hardly planned to end up pregnant at such a young age.

Nearly everyone agrees that planning for a child, rather than falling into a pregnancy accidentally, is preferable. Yet unwanted pregnancies are a distressingly familiar problem, especially in areas where young women have few opportunities for higher education and decent jobs. Better access to contraception, as well as improvements in sex education, are important parts of helping to avoid these pregnancies. But when they do occur, the community-based doula programs offer a warm and nurturing environment for the young women and their babies. The programs are part of a national effort to intervene as early as possible in the lives of children born into troubled circumstances. Allowing social workers, nurses, and community leaders into homes of families while the children are still in the womb helps establish solid foundations for the children's futures.

Doula Bridget Lally, 33, started visiting Reyes when she was in her seventh month of pregnancy. They met once a week, usually for 45 minutes, and talked about such topics as natural childbirth and breast-feeding. Once the baby was born, Lally focused on parenting skills. "Before we had a doula, we didn't know anything," says Reyes. She recalls how her family had tried to help her through childbirth. "I was screaming at them, 'You guys suck at this! I need Bridget,'" Reyes says. "She was the only one in a calm voice who was saying, 'Push.' I'm like, 'Okay.'"

Besides Reyes, Lally works with eight other girls who are pregnant or who have recently given birth, including a 14-year-old rape victim ("I call her, 'my little bird,'" Lally tells me), under the auspices of Christopher House, a Chicago family-resource center. Lally and other doulas have relied on the training and methodology provided by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1982 by Chicago philanthropist Irving Harris.

Community-based doula programs have grown steadily since 1996, adding three to five sites in places around the country per year, says Rachel Abramson, executive director of Chicago Health Connection, a nonprofit agency that has worked in this field for two decades. There are now 34 programs serving 1,800 families annually. A similar program, the Nurse-Family Partnership, which assists first-time mothers, was created in 1977, according to founder David Olds, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado, and now serves 13,000 families in 23 states.

The community-based doula programs and the Nurse-Family Partnership are devoted to families who face not only poverty but a range of social problems, including child abuse, substance abuse, and crime. These are just two of the better known models--there are several other promising approaches--but they represent a range of programs that include everything from parenting groups to counseling for young mothers who may have been victims of sexual abuse. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.