In a few weeks, 17-year-old Juliet will set aside her high school textbooks for a more advanced subject: motherhood.
But the first-time parent won’t be alone, thanks to the Mother-Baby Program of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS).
Located at St. Vincent’s Home in the Tacony section of Philadelphia, the initiative provides housing, prenatal support, parenting education and child care for adolescent mothers.
“It’s very inspirational,” said Juliet, who will give birth to a boy in early February. “One of the most important things I’ve learned from the classes is how to calm a baby down.”
After her delivery, Juliet plans to return to the group residence, which can house up to 12 young women for an indefinite stay ranging from a few weeks to more than a year, depending on the individual’s circumstances. The average length of stay last year was about five months, program administrators say.
Each resident has a private room that she shares with her infant. The facility includes a common kitchen, dining room and recreational area, along with laundry facilities. A minimum of three staff members are on hand during the day, and two remain on site overnight.
The Mother-Baby Program is part of CSS’s overall outreach to at-risk adolescent girls, who are referred by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS).
About 60 girls without safe living environments are placed each year in three community-based group residences run by St. Vincent’s — St. Joseph’s Hall with a capacity of 12 women, Guardian Angel with a capacity of 15 and the Tacony home, which houses 12. On any given day, up to 39 young women reside at the St. Vincent homes.
Those young women who are pregnant or who already have a child stay at the Mother-Baby Program at St. Vincent’s in Tacony, which last year assisted 58 clients, according to administrators.
DHS funds the programming supplied by St. Vincent’s Home.
“St. Vincent’s is an example of how public-private partnerships benefit the community and those we serve,” said Heather Keafer, communications director for DHS, via email.
Founded in 1855 with the help of both St. John Neumann and the family of St. Katharine Drexel, the home was originally an orphanage. Over time, its mission evolved, and many social service agencies now focus on keeping at-risk youth within their extended families and communities. In addition, teen pregnancies and birth rates have fallen to record lows since 1940, according to the Pew Research Center.
Yet the home and its program continue to meet a vital need, according to James Logan, the administrator of CSS’s St. Francis-St. Joseph Homes, which oversees St. Vincent’s Home.
“There are cases where, for whatever reason, girls don’t have family situations where they can remain at home, and they need some kind of care,” Logan said in a recent interview. “St. Vincent is one option for those girls.”
(View a photo gallery of the mothers and babies in the program at St. Vincent’s Home.)
The goal of the Mother-Baby Program is to ensure the health and, ultimately, the independence of the residents, according to Logan.
“We make sure they’re where they need to be educationally,” he said. “And we’re also giving them life skills and preparing them to become parents.”
Paula Scott, a CSS social worker, is the program’s pregnancy and parenting educator. Twice a week she offers classes at the home, mixing clinical experience with common sense and compassion.
“We do a lot of work on discipline, how to praise your child for good behavior as opposed to physical discipline,” she said. “We stress self-care and why it’s important for them as parents.”
Scott also teaches at CSS’s Levittown and Bensalem Family Strengthening Centers, which — along with additional centers in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester Counties — serve as the first point of contact for those seeking help from CSS.
“This work is very important,” Scott said of her parenting classes. “We’re investing in our future.”
Miraca, who has been in the program for the past four months, credits the courses with enabling her to build a new life with her son, Zafir. Now in 11th grade, she plans to attend nursing school after high school graduation, and eventually to become a pediatrician.
“Here at St. Vincent, we’re helping each other grow,” she said. “It’s like a sisterhood.”