Malden Observer

May 6, 2011

By Kristin Ereckson

While teen pregnancy is on the rise in the U.S., a local home visiting program for young mothers is working to keep the numbers down in Malden and its surrounding communities.

A part of the Healthy Families America initiative, Healthy Families Massachusetts is a statewide home visiting program for first-time parents age 20 and under, funded by the Children’s Trust Fund. Based at Hallmark Health System and located on Commercial Street in Malden, Healthy Families Melrose/Wakefield is the local Healthy Families program that serves Malden and surrounding communities.

According to Healthy Families Program Director Beth Chockley, the goal of the program is to help young families in Malden, Everett, Melrose, Medford, Stoneham, Wakefield, Reading and North Reading to “get off to a healthy start.” Program staff make weekly visits to families’ homes to provide them with a wide range of support, from prenatal education to first aid training to child development education to helping mothers to set personal goals. Participants are allowed to partake in Healthy Families until the child turns 3 years old.

Currently, approximately 50 families are enrolled in the program, with 25 percent residing in Malden, Chockley said.

“Teen pregnancy has been a significant issue in Malden and other local communities,” said Chockley, noting that teen pregnancy affects families of all cultures, across all socio-economic groups. “One of our main goals is to help young parents avoid a second pregnancy. Through education and support, we help them to make responsible choices. We provide them with hope for the future.”

And it seems to be working: only 11 percent of Healthy Families participants have had a second child in the two years since the first birth, compared to the statewide average of 16.6 percent and a national annual rate of 35 percent, Chockley said.

Malden resident Nicole Graffam knows firsthand about what kind of hope Healthy Families can provide. Now 22, she voluntary enrolled in the program at age 18, when she was pregnant with her first child, Nathaniel. She recently graduated from the initiative.

“I was a new mom and didn’t know what I was doing,” Graffam said.

When she first entered the program, Graffam endured many hardships — she lived in a homeless shelter temporarily and struggled to put food on the table. Not only did the Healthy Families program provide her with gift cards to buy groceries, but it also encouraged her to create a list of goals, which included securing her own apartment, going back to school and finding a job.
Graffam felt most relieved to have Healthy Families on hand when she noticed her son consistently banging his head on the floor.

“I thought he had some type of issue, and I didn’t have access to the Internet to do my own research,” Graffam said. “My Healthy Families worker did research for me and reassured me that it’s normal. Eventually, he stopped doing it.”

Three years later, Graffam is in a drastically different place than when she first joined the program — she is living on her own with her son, heading back to Bunker Hill Community College in the fall and working as a youth and teen specialist and administrative assistant for the Joint Committee for Children’s Health Care in Everett.

“The Healthy Families program provides a relationship unlike any other,” Graffam said. “It’s not like a friendship or a relationship with a boyfriend. But it is a relationship where they actually listen and care about you and want to help.”

Billie Ann Senopoulos, a senior home visitor with Healthy Families, has been with the program for 12 years and values all of the relationships she has made with her participants. Her favorite part of her job: bringing a mother and child together.

“When I go to a home, often times the teen has no idea what to do with the infant,” Senopoulos said. “The infant is not being touched. But I teach them how to kiss the baby, how to love the baby. I’m hopefully getting these teens off to a better start in life.”

While the Healthy Families program is aiming to keep teen pregnancy rates low in local communities, national teen pregnancy rates are not so encouraging. For the first time in more than a decade, the nation’s teen pregnancy rates rose 3 percent in 2006, reflecting increases in teen birth and abortion rates of 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively, according to a Guttmacher Institute survey released in January 2010.

“…It is clearly time to redouble our efforts to make sure our young people have the information, interpersonal skills and health services they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to become sexually healthy adults,” said Lawrence Finer, Guttmacher’s director of domestic research, in a statement. 

Healthy Families is chipping away at providing those such services and, for the most part, has achieved much success: 88 percent of Healthy Families parents have not abused or neglected their children. In addition, 83 percent of Healthy Families participants are continuing their education or have graduated from school, compared to the national level of 53 percent of teen mothers, Chockley said.

“It’s important to influence families as they are starting out, to get them out on the right foot as they are learning their skills and starting their families before patterns are ingrained,” added Chockley. “The first three years of life are most critical.”

— To learn more about the Healthy Families program, call 781-338-7550 or contact Healthy Families Program Director Beth Chockley directly at 781-338-7541.

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