Team Effort Offers Winning Approach to Aiding Young Moms

Social service collaboration offers counseling, housing help and more

Read story in Chicago Tribune

By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune reporter 
November 16, 2011

By the time Brandy Johnson aged out of state housing for former foster children, she had a child of her own.
With no job and nowhere to live, she worried that it was only a matter of time before her daughter would be taken away and become a ward of the state as well.

"I wasn't ready," said Johnson, now 22. "I kept saying I was, but I really wasn't. … Because of the things that happened when I was young, I was scared to live on my own."

Her transitional housing provider referred her to FACT, or Family Assertive Community Treatment, a program designed in 2008 by Beacon Therapeutic Diagnostic and Treatment Center to help young mothers like Johnson make life better for their children.

Through a collaboration of six social service agencies, FACT offers a range of services, including child development training, substance abuse treatment, trauma counseling, housing and employment assistance, and case management — to mothers 18 to 25 years old who have at least one child 5 or younger and face the prospect of homelessness.

Each of the 70 families and 140 children in the program meets with a multidisciplinary team at least once a week. Like Johnson, about half of the mothers have come out of the state's child welfare system.

"Most of the families we received through the program, if not for us they would be exiting to a homeless situation because their needs are so complex," said Susan Reyna-Guerrero, president and CEO of Beacon Therapeutic. "The goal is to get them stable in permanent housing, through various traumas they have, focusing on the children, focusing on the mom, focusing on the family and working with the system."

Beacon Therapeutic is one of many nonprofits to receive financial support from Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.

The collaborative approach has drastically increased how long the participants live in their own homes and significantly reduced symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress and mental disorders, according to research at the University of Illinois at Chicago's Center on Mental Health Services Research and Policy.

Reyna-Guerrero added that no mothers in the program have lost custody of their children to the state. Despite delays when they entered the program, all children in the program who have been evaluated have reached benchmarks in terms of their development, she said.

The program helps mothers meet their goals too. Employment assessments help them find jobs or pursue education.
Reyna-Guerrero's eyes well up with tears when she recalls the resilience, devotion and sense of shame shared by many of the moms she has met.

"Being able to tap into that strength that these moms have — it's there," she said. "I think it's our responsibility to help them really develop it further. I think that's what we're doing today."

Kathy Daniher, FACT's project director, said the teamwork approach makes a difference for clients who have a history of broken promises.

"You can't do anything with a participant until they trust you," Daniher said. "All the different areas of expertise that come with this specific model, it builds the trust with the participant a lot easier and gives them so many more resources. … It's easier to be able to take a step back yourself when you just need a break for a little while because you know you have the support of a team."

Indeed, Johnson had difficulty immediately trusting the team of experts with whom she meets twice a week. Abandoned by her mother at a young age and abused, she had no family support network to help her raise her daughter, Makya.

"At first it was really hard to talk about my situation," Johnson said. "They've helped me to be more open with what happened to me and to realize it wasn't my fault and to know things will get better no matter what happens."

Johnson is working toward her GED and hopes to enroll in culinary school so she can one day open a restaurant named after her daughter.

"Me having Makya really helped me teach her the things I did not know and to help her to become something I've never been," she said. "I'd like to be a real good mother to her and to let her know I'm here for her no matter what. And let her know we can talk about anything because that's a relationship I did not have with my mother."