Staying in school

Teen mothers push for law change on child support

Students from Florence Crittenton High School listen to state Sen. Mike Johnston as Sen. Larry Crowder stands by.

Right now, if you’re a teen mom in Colorado, there’s a good chance you have to clear a big hurdle to get state financial help to pay for childcare: That is, going to court to seek child support from your son or daughter’s father.

More than a dozen high school students—teen mothers from Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School—visited the Capitol  building Tuesday to press for a law change that would eliminate that requirement for teen parents as well as domestic violence victims.

During a lunch break in a third-floor hallway, the students made their case to lawmakers passing by on the way to nearby meetings. Pausing in the middle of the hallway with briefcases or thick binders in hand, a couple legislators asked the girls to explain House Bill 1227.

In a quiet, halting voice, one student did just that.

The soft-spoken pitch to lawmakers wasn’t meant to benefit the girls lining the Capitol hallway. As Florence Crittenton students, they’re already exempt from the child support requirement because of an unusual one-time waiver granted to the school by the state a few years ago.

What the girls and their supporters wanted was to change the rules for their “sisters”—other teen parents who live in the 46 Colorado counties that have chosen to enforce the child support provision before handing out dollars from the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, or CCCAP.

Proponents say the measure, which is scheduled for its first committee hearing March 18, would remove an intimidating obstacle that’s limiting access to childcare and forcing teen moms to drop out of school.

This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining the CCCAP program.
This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining  CCCAP.

“You’re trying to get a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old to navigate a system that’s already difficult,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of Florence Crittenton Services.

But some counties are pushing back against the bill in its current form, arguing that child support requirements can help families stay intact and set the stage for long-term financial support from non-custodial parents.

Pat Ratliffe, a lobbyist for the membership organization Colorado Counties Inc., said the counties she represents want to amend the bill to provide a shorter period of exemption from child support rules. The group hasn’t decided yet whether that narrower exemption should last a year, be tied to a grade-level milestone or something else.

“We’re trying to find our way through a foggy situation and do not only what’s best for the mom but do what’s best for the child and the family unit,” she said.

It’s not about the money

Opponents of HB 1227 say the purpose of enforcing the child support requirement for teen moms is not the money. Both sides agree that young fathers, especially if they’re still in school themselves, won’t have much to give.

“We don’t expect to collect money from these kids,” said Ratliff.

But she said going through the child support process is the “most obvious and most logical way to keep a father involved.”

Resources

She said when the mother names the father in court, it triggers various county services that promote the father’s involvement.

But supporters of the bill refute that, saying the policy’s not working. They say only about 2 percent of the 10,000 children of teen parents in Colorado have open child support cases, meaning the vast majority of young mothers aren’t seeking child support and whatever family reunification benefits come with it.

“The counties act as if they are so good at working with the dad and the mom…and that is just not true,” said Banning.

The teen’s experience

Between remarks by passing lawmakers on Tuesday, ninth-grader Gemini Leroy talked about the challenges she faced getting child care assistance even without a mandate to seek child support first.

Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.
Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.

“I just had a problem with CCCAP in general,” said the 15-year-old.

She said she’d re-submitted the paperwork twice, and finally obtained childcare assistance for her 14-month-old baby Starla after about seven months.

Leroy, who hopes to join the Army when she finishes high school, said with Starla’s father set to go to prison this spring, she’s not sure how she’d seek child support from him if it was required.

“It would be hard,” she said.

Even for teenage mothers who have a good relationship with their child’s father, the child support requirement can be feel like treading on thin ice.

Linda Becerra, a 10th-grader at Florence Crittenton, said she’d worry about how her daughter’s father would react, especially because he’s an undocumented immigrant.

“I think that he would take that as me being aggressive toward him,” she said. “The last thing I need is for us to have a bad relationship…I want to have good co-parenting.”

Right now, the father contributes financially to six-month-old Ebony, visits her on weekdays and cares for her on the weekend, said Becerra, who hopes to pursue a career in art or architecture.

A challenge to local control

Staff at Florence Crittenton, which enrolls students from multiple counties, began noticing several years ago that students were losing CCCAP money after failing to seek child support. School leaders subsequently negotiated a waiver from the rule with an official at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

That waiver, however, became a sore spot for some county leaders, who believed the state had interfered with local control.

“I think Florence Crittenton had a very good argument about why it makes sense,” said Erin Mewhinney, who last summer became director of the Division of Early Care and Learning in the state’s human services department.

A Florence Crittenton student listens to a legislator in a hearing room.
Florence Crittenton students listen to a legislator in a hearing room.

Still, she said, “I don’t think it’s good policy to waive a policy for one provider…It should have been looked at as a larger policy issue.”

For that reason, Mewhinney said she declined New Legacy Charter School’s request for the same kind of waiver. The Aurora school, which opened last fall, serves pregnant and parenting teens.

There is another kind of waiver—a “good cause” waiver—that counties can grant on a case-by-case basis so women don’t have to go through the child support process. But supporters of HB 16-1227 say it’s inconsistently applied and out of reach for many domestic violence victims who don’t have the right records to prove the abuse.

Even if the proposed legislation passes, Mewhinney said a state task force will continue to look at the barriers that prevent teen mothers from accessing child care assistance. The problem may not be the child support requirement.

“We’re still not absolutely sure that’s why teen parents opt out,” she said.

Cultivating supporters

For a slow day at the Capitol—many lawmakers had already left to attend caucuses in their home districts later that day—the Florence Crittenton students found a receptive audience Tuesday.

When one of the bill’s prime sponsors, Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, stopped by to introduce himself, he praised the measure.

“Personally, I think it’s overdue. I think it should have been done years ago.”

Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, told the girls she planned to add her name to the sponsor list, which currently numbers 38.

When Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, learned of the bill as he walked by, he said he’d be happy to support it. Then, the former principal gave a brief pep talk about the impact of a mother’s education on her child’s future.

“Your investment in your degree is the single best thing you can give them,” he said.

 

Discipline reform

Denver Public Schools takes strong stand against suspension and expulsion in early grades

Community members gathered in the library of Godsman Elementary School for a Denver Public Schools announcement that suspension and expulsion will be eliminated for preschool through third-grade.

Denver Public Schools announced plans Wednesday to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third grade students except in the most serious incidents.

District officials say the move puts DPS on the cutting edge of discipline reform nationally and builds on its work over the last 10 years to reduce suspensions and expulsions for all students, and replace traditional discipline methods with restorative justice techniques.

Wednesday’s announcement during a press conference at Godsman Elementary School came as state lawmakers are considering legislation that would curb suspensions and expulsions in preschool through second grade. The district’s new policy and the proposed legislation represent milestones in the years-long discussion in the state and nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys, students of color and students with disabilities.

The district’s new early childhood discipline policy will be unveiled at Thursday’s school board meeting and will be followed by a 60-day public comment period before it is finalized. It will take effect July 1.

District officials and representatives from local advocacy groups emphasized that the new policy will be accompanied by efforts to provide teachers and other staff with support in using alternative methods to suspension or expulsion.

“We really want to address the issue of student behavior. We really want to address also the issue of adult behavior and give adults a better set of tools and take out the hammer that you don’t need in your tool box…Some tools should not be in the toolbox when we are looking at babies,” said Ricardo Martinez, co-executive director of the Denver-based group Padres & Jovenes Unidos.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said about 500 students in preschool to third grade were suspended last year — most of those in second and third grade. None were expelled.

Under the new policy, suspensions would still be allowed in rare cases if a student poses a serious threat to himself or others. In those cases, suspensions would be limited to one day.

While several school districts and states have banned or significantly curtailed suspensions and expulsions for young students, most focus on students through second grade.

Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity, said part of the reason DPS chose to extend its policy through third grade is to ensure kids are proficient in reading and math by the end of third grade.

“There’s no way we can reach that goal if a student is not in class,” he said.

Starting early

Why boosting mental health for the youngest children is attracting federal — and private — investment

John Hicks, co-facilitator of a parenting class called "The Incredible Years" listens as participants discuss setting rules for their kids.

At dinnertime on a Tuesday night, nine parents sat in a Commerce City preschool classroom discussing the difficulty of setting rules for their small children.

Some said they bark orders too often and are trying to cut back. One mom said she wished one blanket rule — “just love each other” — would cover it. But inevitably she finds a dozen more specific things to list off: Don’t bite, don’t hit and so on.

Over the next hour, the parents and two facilitators talked through more effective approaches, including giving kids fewer direct orders, defining “non-negotiables” and letting little things go.

The parenting class was part of a federally-funded initiative called Project LAUNCH that aims to help parents, preschool teachers, pediatricians and other adults in Adams County boost mental health in young children. It reflects growing national awareness that children stand a greater chance of succeeding in school and life if they get mental health support in their earliest years.

“We have so many kids with social and emotional needs,” said Lisa Jansen Thompson, executive director of the Early Childhood Partnership of Adams County. “It is just increasing.”

The Project LAUNCH work in Adams County is a five-year, $2.6 million effort funded by a federal grant program that pays for similar efforts in states and tribal areas across the country.

Getting kids reading well by the third grade used to be the “north star” for many early childhood advocates, Jansen Thompson said. But now, abundant data show the need to start earlier — well before kids enter school. That’s when key lifelong skills develop, such as the ability to form close relationships and manage strong emotions.

And if that development hits a roadblock, a new set of problems can crop up, like kids getting suspended in preschool or having pitched battles at home.

Competition was stiff for Colorado’s Project LAUNCH funding. Eleven communities submitted letters of interest within a 48-hour period. The Adams County proposal, which focuses on Spanish-speaking families in the southern portion of the county, ultimately won out.

But the story didn’t end there. The outsized interest in early childhood mental health — along with the success of an earlier Project LAUNCH site in Weld County — inspired a first-of-its-kind effort by eight private funders to replicate the program in four other Colorado communities.

That initiative — called LAUNCH Together — last fall awarded a total of $8 million to grantees in Denver, Pueblo, Jefferson County and, working as one team, Chaffee and Fremont counties. The private funders include seven foundations and one health care provider.

“We were not trying to prove that a privately funded model could do this better,” said Colleen Church, director of programs for the Caring for Colorado Foundation, one of the funders. “We were really building off what had worked.”

She said interest in early childhood mental health had been growing among funders for several years, elevating it to the level of traditional child health priorities such as ensuring kids have access to medical care and are fully immunized.

The funders hired a Denver-based organization called Early Milestones Colorado to lead the privately funded effort.

While the details differ in the five communities participating in Project LAUNCH and LAUNCH Together, the primary strategies are the same. They involve special training for preschool teachers, parents and the staff of home visiting programs, which send professionals to work with parents of babies or young children. The idea is to help the adults with whom children interact learn how to foster social and emotional skills in kids, and spot red flags that might require outside help.

There are also efforts to get new mothers screened for depression and to make sure children are routinely screened for developmental milestones at doctor check-ups — and if problems arise, give families quick access to mental health services.

Janine Pryor, coordinator of the Chaffee County Early Childhood Council, said because of the LAUNCH Together funding, “We’re sending people to trainings that no one here could ever afford.”

Leaders of the various LAUNCH efforts say their goal is not just to alter the experience that kids and families have now at preschools, doctor’s offices and in their homes, but to make systems-level shifts that ensure changes continue after the grant money runs out.

At the same time, they want to raise public awareness about the importance of early childhood mental health and reduce the stigma that so often accompanies it.

“We’re going to try in our region to really get the word out and develop messages that will resonate with everyone,” Pryor said.