Leigh Johnson (left) and Amanda Konopka listen to participants in the Safe Dates for Young Mothers program during a discussion session.

Safe dates for young mothers

Empowering young women to avoid abusive relationships

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10:50 a.m., Nov. 21, 2011--Ten pregnant teens walk into the former church basement and take seats in a semi-circle. Slouched in their chairs, they all look like they’d rather be somewhere—anywhere—else.

But within a half hour, they’re laughing, role-playing in scenarios and answering questions posed by their two counselors, who are just a few years older than they are. The teenagers are students at the Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc. (DAPI) in Wilmington, Del., and the counselors are University of Delaware nursing students Leigh Johnson and Amanda Konopka.

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They’re all participating in the “Safe Dates for Young Mothers” program, which is being piloted by Judy Herrman with a $10,000 community action grant from the American Association of University Women. The program is an offshoot of a national program aimed at reducing dating violence—Herrman has modified the “Safe Dates” curriculum to include scenarios specific to teens who are pregnant or parenting young children.

“The philosophy behind peer counselors is ‘chronological closeness,’” Herrman says. “Even though the lives of our students are very different from those of these girls, there is still more relevance and bonding with them than there would be if someone my age was working with them.”

“It’s important to discuss dating violence with teens in an open format where they can feel comfortable asking and answering questions relevant to their own lives,” she adds. “With pregnant teens and young parents, the lives of babies and small children are at stake as well.”

Although Johnson and Konopka met with some initial resistance, as the session progressed, the teens opened up. Using a fictional couple named Elijah and Zoe, the two counselors talked about red flags for abuse in the relationship, including Elijah intimidating Zoe, making her cry and restricting her behavior. Zoe, in turn, is hiding the relationship from her parents, which makes her more isolated and less able to confront her partner’s abusive behavior.

The two peer counselors talked about the role played by friends in facilitating abusive behavior and the function of stereotypes in how relationships are formed. 

“Where do most teens get their images of dating relationships?” Johnson asked. 

TV, movies, and other family members were common answers from the teens. 

“Stereotypes can lead to abuse,” Johnson told the girls, “because they dictate how people are ‘supposed’ to act. If you’re aware of these messages, you can choose whether to believe them or not and you can decide what you want your own relationship to look like.”

The Safe Dates for Young Mothers program runs for eight sessions. With three completed, the two young counselors are starting to make some breakthroughs.

“There has been a steady increase in participation as the sessions continue,” Konopka says. “I feel this is because a trusting relationship has been established. While many of the girls in the program have commonalities, each girl has a different background and experiences. These differences bring diversity to our group discussions and add tremendously to the success of the program.”

In addition to the Wilmington location, the program is being piloted at two other sites in the state, one in Camden and one in Georgetown. “Wilmington is urban, Camden is suburban, and Georgetown is definitely rural,” Herrman says. “These are very different settings, and it will be interesting to see how it goes in each of them.”

Johnson and Konopka already feel they’ve made a difference.

“Having young teachers has enabled the students to open up and ask questions about ideas they might be nervous to ask adults,” Johnson says. “Teen mothers are one of the most vulnerable populations for dating violence, and it’s very important that we address the issue. I think this program has a ton of potential, and we will continue to help educate the young women involved.”

About the team

Judy Herrman is an associate professor in the University of Delaware School of Nursing. She specializes in public policy and health as well as teen pregnancy and sexual behaviors.

Leigh Johnson is a senior nursing major from Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

Amanda Konopka is a senior nursing major and Honors Program student from Canton, Mass.

About the Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc.

The Delaware Adolescent Program, Inc. (DAPI) is an alternative fresh start for pregnant teens to receive the health and social services they need to continue their education during and after their pregnancy. DAPI provides a standards-based educational opportunity for pregnant and parenting teens with unique outreach, mentoring and supportive services promoting empowerment and self-sufficiency.

Article by Diane Kukich

Photos by Ambre Alexander

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