A tale of one homeless teen mother and her toddler

A tale of one homeless teen mother and her toddler

I don’t generally cross-post on TIE. I will this morning for two reasons. First, my personal experience, which I first chronicled at the Century Foundation’s website, TCF.org, may be of interest. It’s certainly of interest to me. Second, the story underscores characteristic failures in human services which are far behind health care in many domains.

I happen to have crossed paths with a wonderful young woman whom I will call Jessica. She is an 18-year-old unmarried mom who cares for her toddler. A few days ago, Jessica and her mom had a bad falling out, and her mom kicked her out. Chicago’s finest drove Jessica and her toddler to the station, and suggested that she call 311. Someone dutifully arrived to drive Jessica and her toddler to a gritty nearby shelter. The driver and the shelter manager signed some forms. As far as I know, that was pretty much all the social service intervention Jessica would receive.

Jessica and her baby slept next to each other in some sort of partitioned communal space, in a shelter that includes men and women with all sorts of psychiatric and behavioral health concerns. She knew she had a bed for the night. If she attended a prayer service, she could get a nice lunch, too. Yet when I reached her by cellphone to learn the above details, she had no idea whether or what any social service professional was doing to help her. She was at a local grocery trying to find some formula with WIC coupons. No one at the shelter had provided that basic item. As far as I know, no one was doing anything for her beyond providing a bed….

Not sure what to do, I contacted the social workers in our own hospital’s adolescent ob-gyn section. The person I reached, Stephanie Mistretta, happens to be a graduate of our school. Because of Stephanie, Jessica and her baby now have what they need, and are making the transition to a respected mother-only facility. Stephanie drove across town to meet with Jessica, delivering diapers and other basic supplies. The two of them enjoyed each other’s company as Jessica begins a new phase of her life.

Stephanie did a fabulous job. It doesn’t detract to mention that much of what she did was vanilla ice cream social work, done by someone with the time and the skills to do it right. She established a human connection with Jessica, and sussed out what Jessica really needed. Stephanie opened her rolodex, made the required phone calls, and followed through. Someone else could—and should—have done the same things, as a matter of course, the moment Jessica placed that 311 call.

One might view this story as having a happy ending. I don’t quite see it that way. If it weren’t for a happenstance connection, Jessica might well still be sleeping in that same forbidding shelter, with no responsible adult or social service professional helping her or her baby in a very difficult situation. One person was well-served despite a series of system failures.

I teach in a school of social service administration. Most of my masters’ students are social workers. Our faculty tries to impart the skills required for the important work our students will do.

This week, my distinguished colleague Curtis McMillan gave our school’s annual “Aims of SSA” address. Curtis researches implementation science and social work quality improvement, particularly in the context of foster care. As Curtis puts it, “mediocre social services won’t cut it.” We need excellent services to have a serious shot at addressing the serious difficulties so many people and communities confront.

Our students require the right mix of technical proficiency and human engagement to do their jobs well.  Professionals such as Stephanie Mistretta bring that to the table. But they need to work within larger systems that provide evidence-supported interventions consistently and well. Human services are miles behind health care in this endeavor, in part because these services are chronically under-funded, in part because the populations-served lack the political and economic resources to demand something better, in part because the culture and the politics of social service delivery doesn’t always promote excellent care.

The results of this public management failure aren’t pretty. As I noted on Thursday,

I wouldn’t offer some sweeping generalization based on such anec-data. It’s just depressing that city services lack the most basic follow-through, even when a teen mom and a toddler were left homeless.

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