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Parenting program helps teen mothers break cycle of violence

Shantell Thomas talks on the phone as she holds her son, Jabari Bartlett, while the two attend an Anti-Violence Night at the Homan Square Community Center in North Lawndale, Illinois. (Heather Charles / Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Shantell Thomas talks on the phone as she holds her son, Jabari Bartlett, while the two attend an Anti-Violence Night at the Homan Square Community Center in North Lawndale, Illinois. (Heather Charles / Chicago Tribune/MCT)Read more

A dozen rowdy youngsters behind her pushed toward the cake, jostling Thomas and knocking Styrofoam cups off the table. Jabari, the 1-year-old birthday boy, sat on his aunt's lap nearby and wailed.

Thomas wheeled around and raised the knife. "Back the fff up," she yelled, catching herself before a curse could slip out. "Or I'm 'bout to cut some necks off."

It had been a stressful night for the 18-year-old mother of two, who organized a party for a dozen and then saw 40 show up. Her mom didn't make it, and she was left to run Pin the Tail on the Donkey on her own.

Her outburst was the default reaction for a teenager raised in a home where violence was the accepted way of dealing with frustration. And her struggle represents the challenge of teaching a teenager how to manage the stress of motherhood and break the intergenerational cycle of violence.

Thomas is working to alter her aggressive tendencies and at the party, help came in the form of Cynthia Brown , her counselor in a parenting program.

"Shantell," said Brown. "Maybe we can think about a better way to say that?"

Thomas dropped the knife to hip level and relaxed her shoulders. "OK, OK back up everyone," she said, her voice still tense. "Back up!"

If Jabari is to learn alternatives to aggressive behavior, it must be imprinted onto his brain now. To do that, you must start with his mom.

"Children model what they see. If they see the parents using physical aggression then the child will learn that — when they meet life's frustrations — the right thing to do is use physical aggression," said Seth Scholer , a professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt who has studied violence and parenting programs. "Evidence points to the fact that ineffective parenting and early childhood aggression are two of the root causes of violence."

Thomas is aware of the research and she wants to change: She enrolled in Parents Too Soon, a program that sends "parent educators" into the home to teach young moms about the social, emotional and brain development of children in the hope they can develop better parenting skills.

But her desire for improvement often crashes into her life's history.

Thomas grew up in a home seeped in violence and drug dealing. She got pregnant when she was 11 years old — the father of the baby was sent to prison for sexual assault of a minor. Thomas's six-year-old daughter lives with Thomas' mother.

Jabari's father is in jail, accused of shooting a 15-year-old girl.

But behind the adult-like armor is a child's softness.

Home visiting programs like Parents Too Soon have been part of the U.S. social fabric since the 19th century when public health nurses and social workers provided in-home health care and parenting education to women in urban areas.

In the last 20 years, a raft of research has shown that, if done right, these programs can improve parenting skills, boost the child's cognitive and emotional development, keep moms on track academically and lower the risk of child abuse and neglect, said Neil Guterman , a professor at the University of Chicago who is a national expert on home visiting.

"There's strong evidence to show these programs, if implemented properly, can improve the life course of the mother and the child," he said.

Research by James Heckman , Nobel Prize winning economist with the University of Chicago, shows that intervening in early childhood is far more cost effective than doing so in later life.

"When you compare the cost of hiring a policeman versus the cost of an early childhood program that promotes high school graduation and reduces crime, it's 10 times more effective to invest in early childhood," he said. "Much of the savings comes from crime reduction."

President Obama is so enamored of the research, he set aside millions in the health care reform bill to fund evidence-based home visiting programs for expecting and young parents.

Parents Too Soon, funded by the Ounce of Prevention, is based on the simple philosophy that parents are a child's best teacher.

It uses a research-based curriculum and trains parent educators to go into homes and translate the scientific facts on brain development into specific advice. By understanding the developmental stages, the thinking goes, parents can improve the child's social, emotional and cognitive growth.

For Thomas, Parents Too Soon came just in time.

She joined last year as a 17-year-old high school dropout with two parents in prison for drug dealing and two children. She worried she'd never overcome the family history of poverty, crime and bad parenting.

"My father taught me to be a hustler. My mama taught me how to talk people out of stuff I want," she said. "I want to be a better parent than what my parents did. I needed someone to teach me how to do better than that."

In Parents Too Soon, Thomas found not only teachers, but mothers.

The four women who serve as parent educators have adopted the gutsy teenager as their own.

They convinced her to go back to school and pushed her to set realistic goals. "Find a job. Take ACT in Dec. 2009. $50 in my bank account," reads the goals list propped inside a picture frame on Thomas's apartment wall.

It was Brown who talked Thomas out of exacting revenge on a group of teenagers who beat her up a few months ago. It's Brown who teaches her to calm her anger when Jabari wails. And it is Brown who harangues her to forgo a weekend job so she can spend more time with Jabari.

"These are the most important years," Brown repeats incessantly.

Eighteen months ago, Thomas was on the block, selling drugs. Today, she hangs out in their offices at Family Focus Lawndale organizing files, making copies and absorbing parenting advice. She's so much a part of the fabric, she has a place to store her backpack and coat.

"We're her family now," Brown said.

This type of relationship — what noted psychiatrist Dr. Carl Bell calls an "adult protective shield" — fosters a sense of safety and security vital to Thomas and Jabari.

On an unseasonably cold autumn afternoon, Thomas and Jabari sat on the floor of their apartment as a toy train rolled across the floor. Thomas grabbed it.

"Square?" she asked Jabari. He pointed to the square shape on the train.

"Good job," she said.

The lesson continued for about three minutes until Jabari tired of it and hit Thomas.

"Stop it," she said. "You driving me crazy."

Brown sat quietly on the other side of the room until Jabari started to cry.

"Why do you think he hit you," she asked. "Why do you think he is crying?"

"I guess he want the toy," Thomas said. "Or he probably sleepy or maybe his diaper is dirty or he ain't getting all the attention he needs."

"Yes, it might be one or all of those things," Brown advised. "When you are playing with him, think about his development and what we've learned about how his mind is working right now."

Brown reminded Thomas that childhood aggression is a normal part of development. Sometimes children hit because they do not have the language skills to express frustration.

"We should teach him better ways to deal with frustration," Brown said.

Brown knows parenting has a huge impact on the way the brain becomes wired.

Science has shown that violent parenting, poverty and neglect can alter the brain's chemistry in ways that make some children more prone to violence. Babies are born with millions of connections between the neurons in their brains. As they grow older, some connections strengthen and others disappear.

In hostile environments, the developing connections create pathways of aggression. These brain changes can permanently stamp into genes the propensity for violence.

"In a sense, bad experiences and stressors can reprogram the brain," said Darren Gitelman , associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "So later on, in a stressful situation, the brain may interpret a threat in a way that requires a more aggressive response than necessary."

Thomas knows she and Jabari have a long journey ahead. But it's the distance traveled that Brown wants her to focus on.

Nine months ago, Thomas would walk into Jabari's day care, say "give me my baby" and walk out without talking to the teachers or bonding with her son.

Two weeks ago, she strolled into the day care, hugged two of Jabari's classmates and asked the teacher how her son had done. Then she scooped up Jabari, kissed him on the cheek. He nuzzled his head on her shoulder.

"I want to be an excellent parent," she said. "I want to teach them how to be leaders, make sure they finish school. I don't want them wilding out, fighting. I want them to be respectful."