Gotham Gazette

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Helping Foster Children Become Better Parents

Amy Cooper sits in a circle with seven pregnant women and one new mother demonstrating the techniques of infant massage. Massage, she explains, can be a valuable tool to help a newborn deal with tension and stress, sleep more and cry less, and connect with a mother in a physical way.

One woman seems surprised and slightly nervous about the idea that babies liked to be touched.

"Some of us have negative experiences with touch, like if it was used to punish us," Cooper says. "For moms who haven't had good experiences, baby massage can be a positive way to respond to your baby when he or she is upset. Rather than neglecting or hurting your baby, you can massage.”

The women in the group understand: They are all teenagers, all live in foster care, and most have experienced abuse and neglect themselves.

Cooper’s class at Inwood House, a group home for pregnant and teenage mothers, is one of a handful of initiatives in New York City that aim to stop generational cycles of abuse by working with young moms. Like the massage class, many of these programs focus on educating mothers living in foster care.


Although teenage pregnancy has decreased significantly in the last 10 years, it remains common for girls in foster care. By age 19, nearly half of all girls in foster care have been pregnant, and 31 percent have had a child. (Nationwide, 12.2 percent of girls have had a child by age 19.)

The national Nurse-Family Partnership has long helped low-income, first-time mothers learn to parent. In October, it started a special project in New York City to recruit girls who are in foster care, homeless, or coming out of jail from Rikers Island. The program works with the youth development programs at the Administration for Children’s Services and at foster care agencies to reach the teen parents.

“We’re targeting them because these moms are more vulnerable,” says Julia Carter, a supervisor of the program. “They have all the questions any new mother would have, but less support.”

Each expectant mom in the Nurse-Family Partnership is assigned a nurse, who visits with the mother while she's still pregnant. The nurse helps the mom get prenatal care and tries to help her cut down on unhealthy habits like smoking. Later, the nurse teaches the mother how to care for her baby, helps her to who her child is, and how they can form a relationship.


But the partnership does not reach every young mother who needs help. When a young mom named Melanie (not her real name), started feeling like her two-year-old son was too much to handle, she thought she would have to give him up. As a single mother living in a homeless shelter, she didn't believe that she was able to take care of her toddler.

So Melanie was relieved when her shelter sent her to the New York Foundling’s Crisis Nursery, an organization dedicated to “saving, preserving, and building families” that dates back to 1869.

The lower Manhattan nursery -- which offers up to three weeks of free childcare to parents facing a crisis, emergency cash and goods, and counseling -- found out that Melanie was a victim of domestic violence and feared she couldn't keep her son safe.

The Crisis Nursery helped Melanie obtain an order of protection against her abuser. They also gave her counseling on domestic violence, and connected her to a support program in her own community. Melanie is now living with her child and continues to stay in contact with the organization.

"She feels more capable of meeting her son's needs," said Victoria Peña, the director of the Crisis Nursery. "And she knows she can always count on us for support."

Peña says that facing a crisis without support can be more than even the most well-meaning parent can handle. And too often, such events send some children into foster care. By caring for the parent as well as the child, the Crisis Nursery hopes to make the family safer now and in the future – and enable the children to remain with their parent.

"If we had programs like this in the outer boroughs abuse rates would drop and neglect would drop,” says New York Foundling Director Bill Baccaglini.

But not all young moms agree. Some worry that accepting services will make their kids more likely – not less -- to get caught up in the city’s children’s services system. Young moms who have been in care themselves or have had negative experiences with city agencies can also find it hard to trust outsiders offering them services, especially ones connected to foster care. Because the Crises Nursery gets funding from the Administration for Children’s Services and must report evidence of physical abuse, for instance, some mothers fear that their children may be taken away from them.

But the program’s organizes say they work to win the trust of the young mothers with histories of foster care. Then, the organizers say, the real work begins. One of the main challenges is teaching a young mother who had been abused or neglected how to communicate and bond with her baby in healthy ways.

“The hardest thing for any new parent is realizing that this little baby is a person with its own personality,” says Carter of the Nurse-Family Partnership Program. “As new parents, you have to learn to work with that personality so that you can communicate and understand what your baby needs from you. I think when things go wrong is when there's no communication.”


When Cooper teaches infant massage to the soon-to-be-mothers at Inwood House -- demonstrating on a seven-month-old named Madison -- she explains that babies communicate with their mothers and the environment through body language.

"Some of us get disappointed when we're looking at our baby and he or she looks away,” Cooper says. “It's not that they're rejecting you, but they're saying 'that was a lot to take in, give me a moment.’”

Toward the end of her massage, Madison gets restless and begins giggling. She squirms while her mom tries to massage her face, and her mom has to stop.

"That's OK," Cooper says, explaining that massage is simply a way of connecting and relaxing, and every baby has her own limits. "She's showing you she's had enough."

This article by Natasha Santos and La Quesha Barner both writers at Represent, a magazine written by and for teens in foster care, is adapted from the pages of our partner Youth Communication. Additional reporting by Sasha Chavkin. 

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