For young parents juggling work, school, and child care, supporting their families while transitioning into adulthood can be challenging. And parents with low incomes and those who have been involved with the foster care or criminal legal systems face even greater barriers to achieving stability. Service providers and other organizations working to support young parents at this important stage in their lives are crucial to ensuring they have the resources they need to set their families up for success.
To explore how organizations can improve young parents’ employment and educational opportunities, we talked with representatives from three partners involved in the Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential (LEAP) initiative learning cohort focused on supporting young parents, which the Urban Institute facilitates. We spoke with staff members at two LEAP cohort members—the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation and The Door in New York City—as well as with Hennepin Healthcare, a Minnesota organization that collaborates with Project for Pride in Living, another LEAP cohort member.
These organizations use different strategies to support young people in different communities across the country, but they all provide examples of what it can look like to strengthen services for young parents. To learn more about their work, we asked the staff members all the same question:
How can organizations better serve young parents to help them transition to adulthood and support their families?
Their answers highlight the importance of convening cross-sector partners to work toward common goals, connecting with other organizations to meet parents’ basic needs, and navigating public systems to remove barriers and help young people achieve their goals.
Sara Riffel, vice president of older youth systems for the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation
“We believe that convening cross-sector partners is the way we can make the greatest impact. It’s important to start with convening young people, to hear what they have to say and build a plan of priorities from there, not the other way around. We’re asking to be invited to their table for discussion and partnership. Then we bring in cross-sector partners to make it happen. Each partner—from community-based organizations to schools to public agencies—brings their strengths to the table, and then we can identify their common goal and priorities. Every one of the sectors has a stake in the game, and we identify what that is, what energizes that particular sector about that policy or practice change. Taking that approach results in long-term sustainability because everyone is bought in. Our hope is that if there’s cross-sector support, then it’s more likely to create long-term change.
“This type of work can be really slow. It takes a lot of time and it’s really easy to get discouraged about the slow process. And it’s easy then to want to change your mind and try to do it alone. To combat that, if the progress is slow and the energy is getting low, we bring in young people. Consult with young people, ask them how to create energy, let them lead a meeting or conversation. And that builds that energy back when it seems really slow and impossible.”
Shavaughn Stewart, supervisor of foster care programming for The Door
“We find that our youth need additional supports in order to be successful in programming, or to even start to think about, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ It’s hard to think about making money when you have all of these base-level needs that are not being met. And then when you have a child, that gets even harder. We partner with anyone in the community who can help meet their needs—organizations that offer breastfeeding, doula support, and postpartum care workshops, supplies for children and parents, and nutrition and food assistance. Being able to provide those supports they need so that they can start to plan and think about what they want for their future is really important.
“We’ve also trained our staff in a parenting program based in self-care that is an internal reflection of people’s experiences and being intentional about what it is from their childhood that they want to take with them and what it is that they want to leave. It’s important to recognize that youth, especially our system-involved young people, are navigating their own traumas and issues while also trying to raise a human. So it gets a lot more challenging because there’s this innate feeling that you’re failing—you’re failing your child, you’re failing yourself—and it’s a lot more intense when you feel like someone else depends on you. It’s important to know that the young people are experiencing things that are interacting with how they parent and to not make assumptions about what that is or why they’re struggling.”
Mary Pat Sigurdson, TeenHOPE and Pathways program manager for Hennepin Healthcare
“All public assistance programs have a lot of rules, and they’re eligibility-based, which means there are lots of ways you can get bounced off them. So, if you think about young people being able to forecast and organize materials and turn in paperwork and know how to fill out forms, that just isn’t likely to be something that, developmentally, our youth are great at. And not turning in a form has an outsized consequence to it. Because most of these youth are in households with very little financial resources, not getting a grant for a month can mean you get evicted or end up in a shelter, and that has a whole cascading downward impact. These aren’t easy systems to navigate, and they aren’t built for youth. We’ve done a lot of relationship-building work with the county to ensure we can identify and reach young people before they fall off [cash assistance] and help them fill out any paperwork necessary so their forms can get processed right away and they can avoid losing their benefits, which helps reduce the churn that county workers need to deal with as well.
“We need to map out what kind of a web can support young parents to get them through school. Whether that’s relationships with schools, counties, or child care centers, we need to think about the barriers these kids face and try to come up with reasonable solutions. Because it isn’t that useful to the young parents if we don’t collaborate, if we don’t create a way to look at the systems that impact them and make them work better. For a lot of years when you would make suggestions, people would say, ‘Well, you’re just enabling them.’ Yeah, you’re enabling them to go to school if you erase some of those barriers. We need to take a serious approach to the very real barriers young parents face.”
This feature was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. We are grateful to them and to all our funders, who make it possible for Urban to advance its mission. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Casey Foundation or the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts.
DEVELOPMENT Jerry Ta
EDITING Liza Hagerman
PHOTO EDITING Rhiannon Newman
WRITING Emily Peiffer