Behavior

Despair that breeds despair

Brenda Rabkin February 5 1979
Behavior

Despair that breeds despair

Brenda Rabkin February 5 1979

Despair that breeds despair

Behavior

Brenda Rabkin

The poster shows a teen-age girl staring dreamily out the window. She is unmistakably pregnant. The caption reads: “What are you doing Saturday night? When you become a parent you make a date for twenty years. 1,050 teenagers became pregnant in Canada this week.” The poster is part of the attempt by Planned Parenthood of Canada to warn teen-agers of the realities of pregnancy and to encourage them to prevent it. But though the message has been conveyed through a startling picture and explicit language, it will have little impact on the teen-age girls for whom it is intended. The fact is that girls in their teens are on their way to contributing to a new kind of baby boom.

In 1958 there were 6,301 babies born out of wedlock in Canada to girls 15 to 19 years of age. By 1967 the number born under those circumstances had increased to 11,775, and by 1976 the figure may have exceeded 19,000. For the same time period, the over-all birthrate in Canada declined by almost 45 per cent. The consequences of this teen-age mother phenomenon are already being

strongly felt, largely because most of the mothers are opting to keep their babies. Girls in this age group are least prepared emotionally and financially to raise infants on their own and there are very few social institutions available to help them. But they still have the legal right to make the decision. When they do, the results are frequently calamitous, not only for the young mothers, but more tragically, for the babies.

“The biggest problem with teen-age mothers is that many decide to keep their babies and hang onto them till they can’t manage anymore,” says Betty A. Schwartz, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society in Winnipeg and an outspoken critic of what she views with alarm as the lack of social responsibility toward these girls. “Then they bring their children to us and ask for adoption, but by that time the damage has been done. So many of these kids have been neglected, or abused, from the very beginning.” Adoption figures across Canada substantiate Schwartz’s point of view. In 1970, Children’s Aid Society of Metropolitan Toronto placed 878 infants under the age of one year and 170 toddlers (ages 1 to 4) in adoption homes. In 1977 there were

only 90 infants available, while there were 52 toddlers. Figures for Vancouver reveal a more desperate picture. The ministry of human resources reported that 956 infants and 76 others from one to 18 years of age were adopted in 1970. In 1977 only 482 infants were adopted, but the number of oneto four-yearolds numbered 107. “It’s the girl who is most deprived and least able to look after a child who will dig in her heels the hardest and try to keep it,” says Joe Michalchyshyn, former supervisor of the Unmarried Mothers Unit of Winnipeg Children’s Aid. “They hope the baby will fill that big void in their lives.”

If a girl tries to raise her baby with the help of her family, the chances for her and her baby making it are considerably higher than if she decides to go it alone. If the girl does not live with her family, she can qualify for welfare and mother’s allowance as long as she is of majority age. Depending on the province, this is 18 or 19. If the mother is too young to qualify, both she and the infant can be made wards of the state and placed in foster care. Neither option has

proven to be very effective. There are virtually no comprehensive programs in Canada that intercept the young mother in early stages of pregnancy to ensure that she gets good medical care, or that teach her parenting skills or supervise her closely after the baby is born. “To me the most frightening aspect is that a 14-year-old girl will be allowed to make a decision on her own about whether or not she will keep her baby,” says Heather Carruthers, a social worker at Villa Rosa, a home for unwed mothers in Winnipeg. “She can’t sign a lease or any contract. She can’t vote, she can’t get a credit card. She can’t even get married. But she can make a decision to keep her baby. I just don’t think that a girl of that age is equipped to make that kind of choice.”

For many an adolescent girl, the decision to parent is based on her own needs and not those of the child. When she discovers that her needs are not being met, but rather that the child is making constant demands upon her—demands that she cannot possibly meet because she hasn’t the intellectual, emotional or financial resources—the problems begin to become visible in the community. It is at this time that the infants themselves can become the victims of abuse and neglect. A study on abuse by the American Humane Society found that while unmarried families make up one-sixth of the households in the United States, they account for 50 per cent of reported abuse and neglect cases. The young single mother represented the most serious threat to children, including the most violent acts of abuse. And in Ontario, a coroner’s jury on Nov. 30, 1977, recommended that all children born in Ontai^Ä to mothers under 18 be listed in a provincial directory of potential child abuse.

“We see a significant number of very young children of adolescent mothers who have serious health problems,” says Dr. Sally Longstaffe, a pediatrician at the Children’s Centre in Winnipeg. “Many haven’t developed as they should because they haven’t received the warmth and intellectual stimulation that’s so important in the first few months.” Cases of malnutrition among these infants are not uncommon. Many of them are obese and anemic because they are fed largely carbohydrate diets. A child development study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore assessed the development of 525 children born to girls who were 16 years or less. They found that at age 4,11 per cent of the children scored 70 or below on IQ tests compared with only 2.6 per cent of the general population of four-yearolds. The study also found that these

children had more behavior problems and higher rates of failure in school.

Although there have been no studies done on the subject in Canada, Children’s Aid and other adoption officials across the country estimate that 20 per cent of teen-age mothers who opt to keep their babies will give them up for adoption either voluntarily or through court order within two years. “It’s the other 80 per cent I worry about,” says Joe Michalchyshyn. “They’ll keep Chil-

dren’s Aid in business. We’ll see them in Family Services, in juvenile court, and back again in the Unmarried Mothers Unit. And we’ll see them in prisons.” One major method of extricating these children from their untenable predicament is through legal intervention. If neglect on the part of the parent can be proven, the child can be made a ward of the Crown or a Children’s Aid Society. But the wheels of the law turn slowly. Anne was 17 years old when she had her first baby out of wedlock. Seven months later he died. An autopsy revealed fractures of the skull and both legs. She claimed that she was holding him in her arms while riding in a car, that the car was hit from behind, and she dropped him. Her second child was born several months later. When he was 10 months old, neighbors complained to Children’s Aid because he was constantly crying. The worker found a poorly developed, badly cared-for child. A hospital examination revealed a broken skull, a broken clavicle, as well as significant growth retardation. Children’s Aid went to court on the child’s behalf and won a permanent order. He was placed in foster care. But Anne appealed the decision and won. In the

meantime Anne gave birth to a third child. This time Children’s Aid apprehended the newborn infant while it was still in the hospital nursery and sought a permanent order for both children. Anne never appeared in court and the judge had no choice but to award the children to Children’s Aid. But almost two years had gone by from the time Children’s Aid had first instituted proceedings against the mother.

The outcome of a case can also often be influenced by the personal bias of the judge. Says Judge R.H. Harris, a family court judge of the Manitoba bench: “I don’t think Children’s Aid has a right to interfere unless the girl asks for it. We have to give the girl a reasonable opportunity to prove that she can be a good parent. We’re not talking about chattels here. Parents are entitled to their children and children to their parents. A permanent order is like an execution—there’s no looking back.” But a colleague, Senior Family Court Judge E.C. Kimelman, said in a recent judgment: “Courts must begin to realize that some parents will never be good parents and should never have become parents and some children should not be held in abeyance pending our final realization of the lack of capability of the parents . .. Courts must realize that to be a parent does not guarantee that you are actingin the best interest of the child and earlier intervention by the state should be the rule, not the exception.”

Such state intervention might save the children, but would certainly alter the country’s social patterns. Who, for instance, would assume the responsibility for these children? Furthermore, it appears that those least capable of parenting are rushing to fill that role, while those most qualified are refraining or delaying. In 1976 the National Organization of Non-Parents reported: “In 1975,21 per cent of all 25to 29-year-old women ever married were child-free, compared to 15 per cent in 1970, and 11 per cent in 1965. This increasing trend toward delaying childbirth means that more and more women are childless at 30 years of age.”

“I see a future where there will be a strong polarization between the haves and the have-nots,” says Betty Schwartz. “On the one hand we are raising a greatly advantaged group of childrtn who are smarter, healthier and sturdier than ever before. And then there are those who are never going to have anything. I fear they may be headed on a collision course. If adults are going to give over to children the responsibility for bearing and rearing children, we’re going to have to make very different arrangements.”