The birth of her baby girl should have been the happiest day of the young mom’s life; instead, it became an agonizing experience.
The baby was just 10 hours old when Child and Family Services apprehended her, as they had her son a few months before.
“It was so painful to have that happen,” said ‘Jenny,’ whose name has been changed to protect the identity of her children who remain in care.
“I just get really pissed off that that happened, because I could have prevented it. I don’t know why I was so … stupid back then,” she said, turning away tearfully.
Three years later, the ache of that moment is dulled by the joy of caring for her newborn daughter Britney.
As she sat in the pregnancy support office at Edmonton’s Boyle Street Community Services, Britney cooing and gurgling nearby, Jenny shared the story of how she battled back from abuse, depression, and the apprehension of her first two children.
She was seven months pregnant with Britney, living on a couch, and falling into a frustrated depression when a friend suggested she visit the Healthy, Empowered, and Resilient (HER) pregnancy program at Boyle Street.
HER is an outreach program that supports vulnerable pregnant women and mothers up to six months after they’ve given birth. Four pregnancy support workers, a social worker, and two registered nurses serve their clients wherever they feel most comfortable, even if that means checking fetal heart rates or doing blood work and STI testing in a back alley or out of their cars.
The HER program is supported by Alberta Health, which committed $1.4 million to the program between 2014 and 2017. That funding is set to expire at the end of March.
Carolyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health, said she hoped to have an update available soon on the likelihood of continued funding.
“This program shouldn’t be put into a world where it’s depending on donations, this is very valuable work,” said Marliss Taylor, the manager of Edmonton’s Streetworks.
While the team isn’t worried yet, they will be if there’s no word on funding by the fall, said Taylor. By Christmas, they’ll have to stop taking clients; it wouldn’t be fair if they could only stay with them for a few months, she said.
Since its first iteration in 2007, almost 550 women have accessed services through the HER program.
While Child and Family Services likely would have apprehended many of these women’s children, HER has flipped the statistics. Between October 2015 and March 2016, 73 per cent of the moms who planned to parent still had custody of their babies six months after they gave birth.
Over the same period, 11 of the 17 babies were born at a healthy weight, and just one had to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit. The program works with women who may have had numerous bad experiences with the child welfare system, who may be homeless, fleeing abuse, or have a history of using drugs and alcohol.
“We focus on reaching out to the women that have basically fallen through the cracks,” said Morgan Chalifoux, one of HER’s pregnancy support workers.
Many of the women they work with don’t have any kind of support, so when they walk through the door, HER gives them “wrap-around” services, Chalifoux said.
That can include helping them access government housing and income support, health education and prenatal care. For others, it’s touring the hospital to prepare for delivery, connecting them with cultural and spiritual supports, or simply being there to talk.
HER’s harm reduction approach is also critical to its success – they don’t insist their moms are clean and sober.
“We have an open door policy,” said Chalifoux.
If clients want to work on their addictions, help is available. If not, they are encouraged to make healthy decision in other ways: using clean needles, getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and taking pre-natal vitamins.
“Abstinence doesn’t work for everyone,” said Nadine Santin, one of HER’s registered nurses. But addressing factors like housing, income, and healthy diets can have a huge effect, she said.
Many of HER’s clients grew up in and out of care. The program aims to break that cycle – and Chalifoux is proof it’s possible. She was homeless and pregnant with her first son at 14.
“When you’re that young the stats and the odds are kind of against you,” she said. “Fourteen years later I have a teenager that stands almost the same height as me and we argue over him putting on deodorant.”
Jenny is on track for the same happy ending.
“I’m just glad that these women took me in as their own,” she said.
Growing up in Saddle Lake Cree Nation, Jenny was close with her family. Her parents were “very traditional” and taught her to embrace her indigenous culture, she said.
Later in life, Jenny isolated herself as a relationship turned abusive and both her children were taken. “I was ashamed,” she said. “I just kept everything a secret.”
She walked away from the abuse six months before she got pregnant with Britney and was soon homeless and using drugs.
But she made the choice to rebuild her life and the HER program has helped her succeed.
“It just slowly fell into place, it’s like boom, boom, boom, I had a home, I got my baby, I don’t have child welfare involvement, it just all panned out pretty much perfectly,” Jenny said.
Now she’s planning to go back to school to become a community support worker. “I want to be able to make a difference in someone’s life, the way they made a difference in my life,” she said.
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