Niagara Gazette

November 19, 2013

New residence in Niagara Falls reaches out to homeless teen moms in Niagara County

By Michele DeLuca
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Some people scoffed when Hillary Clinton said, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

She may have been wrong. In some cases, it takes a whole nation. The evidence: A new residence for homeless teen moms, which opened in October in Niagara Falls, was born through a vibrant service network locally, with funds that came through state and federal channels.

The residence, called The Crib, will be open to pregnant teens and teen moms throughout Niagara County who have no where else to go.

As a result, some teen moms and moms-to-be will have clean rooms, beds, cribs, and all the support they need to make their lives better for themselves and their babies.

“It’s been a dream of ours for years,” said Ken Sass, director of Family & Children’s Services of Niagara. 

The agency also operates the Casey House for homeless teens and it was through their experience with the region’s young people that they realized the deep need for a maternity group home.  

“We would get girls at the Casey House who were about to give birth or who had just given birth and we couldn’t help them,” Sass said. “It was frustrating.”

The agency had been watching for available grants and when a competitive federal grant became available, they received one of 100 awards given. The $180,000 grant was put to work, and within six months, The Crib was opened, Sass said.

“The story of The Crib is the story of a community coming together,” he said.

But, it couldn’t have been done without the help of many, including the Community Missions, which had an empty group home available and leased it to Family & Children’s Services. Help also came from the Niagara County Youth Services Program who provided help with the grant, and from State Sen. George Maziarz, who used his influence to move the stalled application through its first stop in Albany. In addition, the United Way has promised some funding in the coming year, Sass said.

Girls in the residence will be taught about parenting starting from birth, acccording to Jeffrey Wierzbicki, director of youth services for Family & Children’s Services. 

“A lot of our kids don’t even know where to begin,” he said, describing how some of the young moms have to be taught when to change a diaper, when to feed the baby and how to soothe the baby.

“They don’t have people to guide them,” Wierzbicki said. “That’s what the staff here is being trained to do.”

The moms will be able to take advantage of the agency’s Healthy Families program, which was created to teach parents successful parenting tools, including how to bond with their children.

The moms are also supported to obtain their high school diploma and in finding employment and housing. They can stay at The Crib for up to 18 months.

While Niagara Falls is an epicenter of teen pregnancies with numbers four times higher than elsewhere in the state, the issue is of concern throughout the region, which is why United Way has promised some funding of The Crib as well, said Carol Houwaart-Diez, president of the United Way of Greater Niagara.

She noted that while numbers fluctuate each year, Niagara Falls was once No. 1 in the state for the highest number of teen pregancies. 

“Ask yourself the question — do you want to be number one in that regard? The answer is ‘no ‘ “ she said.

Teen pregnancies impact many social issues, Houwaart-Diez added, from graduation rates to foster care admission to youth employment and youth poverty. 

“If we could make an impact on teen pregnancy will it move the needle on all those issues,” she said. “I believe it will.”