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Jeanie Whitten: Address young families' needs, such as safe home-visiting programs, accessible child care

As a lifelong Oregon resident, I grew up in a famJeanie Whittenily like many others, with a lot of love and our fair amount of financial struggle.

With the tirelessly hard work of my mother and the support of our family, faith community, and some public assistance, we always managed to scrape by.

When I was 15 years old, however, our family found itself at what felt like an impossible crossroads. I had found myself in an abusive relationship and ultimately discovered that I was pregnant with my first son. Our whole world stopped.

Suddenly, my family had to shift focus and our very limited resources to keeping me safe and healthy and finding resources available for families in our situation.

I am now a 30-year-old doctorate candidate and nonprofit professional. My oldest son, who I gave birth to at the age of 16, is now 14 years old and preparing to start high school, while my younger son is almost 8.

How did I manage to finish high school, graduate college, complete a master's degree, build a career and support my children? Sure, I worked very hard. Yes, I had incredible family support (unfortunately unavailable for so many). However, I would not have been able to do any of these things without the teen-parent supports through the school district, local nonprofits and government programs.

While the effects of this pandemic on teen and young parents are not yet fully known, we must recognize that young families are facing serious and long-term effects as a result. Not only in regard to education, but basic issues of survival.

Keeping our young families safe, healthy and well-supported during this time requires a comprehensive approach. This means finding ways to balance the reality that it is not yet safe for much of life to go back to "normal" as we know it. This also means recognizing that health, safety and support for our young families does not end here.

Research shows that young moms currently are up to four times more likely to be experiencing mental health challenges than their peers without children or mothers over the age of 21. Teen parents also are experiencing several additional challenges including limited access to child care, balancing work and school, interruption of education (children needing care, utility interruption, housing insecurity, and/or food insecurity), and limited internet/technology access. Not to mention, many young parents hold jobs in the service industry often considered essential.

Therefore, not only are they balancing work and school schedules, but also experiencing a higher likelihood of being exposed to COVID-19. Furthermore, pandemic-related job loss has impacted young moms especially hard with increasing disparities among black and Latina women.

While most cities and counties are facing significant financial challenges during this time, we cannot forget about our young parents and families who are struggling like never before. This can be done through increasing support to existing teen-parent services in Clackamas County and the school districts and supporting further initiatives that address young families' needs, including safe home-visiting programs, accessible child care, addressing basic needs around housing, food, utilities, access to affordable mental health care, and access to affordable health care, pediatric care and prenatal care.

Raising children takes a village. We are that village.

Jeanie Whitten is a resident of Gladstone.


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