Kids for KidsSafe Haven

UT Social Work students advocate for Pre-K Another option for the pregnant and scared Seven Days

Of course, lectures and mitosis have their place in academia, but some of the most effective classes are those with a hands-on approach. The Social Work Department at UT recently infused its Generalist Practice class with a project that removes students from their comfortable bubble, inciting them to become more socially active citizens.

 

Horrified, McConnell and Youst earned the support of some state officials and helped pass

Tennessee

's Safe Haven Law, which allows a woman to surrender her newborn within 72 hours of its birth to any local hospital or medical center, without fear of prosecution, or persecution for that matter. Since the law's effective date of

July 1, 2001

there have been no newborn slayings or unsafe abadonments in

Blount

County

, and there has been one confirmed surrender.

 

"I think anything's an alternative to abortion," says Rummel, though she says abandoning a child is "a last resort."

You sit in that huge lecture hall in the UC Auditorium, slightly dazed from last night's frolicking and annoyed by the droning professor's seeming obsession with mitosis. "Why am I in this class?" you think. "Am I really learning anything that's going to help me in life?" Then four or five years later, amidst a mob of fellow graduates in Thompson Boling Arena, you ask yourself the same sort of questions. But this time, the questions are more pressing, as you will soon be rudely catapulted into the "real world."

Of course, lectures and mitosis have their place in academia, but some of the most effective classes are those with a hands-on approach. The Social Work Department at UT recently infused its Generalist Practice class with a project that removes students from their comfortable bubble, inciting them to become more socially active citizens.

The assignment was to advocate a social movement that applies to the mission of social work. Catherine Dulmus, Ph.D., and second-year doctoral student Andridia Mapson, who teach the two sections of the class, chose Pre-K as an issue for the students to focus on advocating because of its timeliness.

Were it not for all the legal hoops and funding questions, installing a statewide Pre-K program would presumably be a no-brainer. It has always been held that practices like reading to kids can only give them a jumpstart on learning, but recent studies have solidified the theory that the brain develops earlier in life than previously thought. Many now hold that mental stimulation is just as vital from the ages three to five as it is after the age of five.

Kim Brewer, a junior in the class, views the project fervently. "From a social work standpoint, it's important to get all children educated at an early age. There's a lot of research out there that proves the brain is essentially like a sponge before the age of five," she says.

While there are government-funded early education programs in place, they benefit a select few. "The Headstart program is out there, but it is only for those in the lowest socioeconomic sector, so people who don't qualify for it but can't afford private [education] don't have anywhere to send their kids," says Brewer.

Aside from boning up on early education research, the blossoming social workers' assignment was to get out of the classroom and get involved. Mapson says, "We wanted to get them out in the community and advocate for people who can't advocate for themselves." Many of the students found this realm of social work more invigorating than the better-known clinical applications. "It's really an energizing and empowering experience for students," says Dulmus.

Both teachers express wonder at how well the students handled the  nebulous assignment. Dulmus says, "The students developed an intervention strategy that was not only local, but also statewide. I was surprised at how well they were able to blanket the state."

The students divided themselves into three groups: writing, fundraising, and publicity. "It was our responsibility," Brewer says, "to get out and talk to the community, so we sent lots of e-mails and letters to senators and different organizations. We also organized a trip to Nashville for Day on the Hill [a day designated for practicing social workers work with legislators], and we had the chance to speak with Jamie Hagood. She was great, and she really listened to us."

Sen. Hagood was equally impressed with the students' initiative to come to Nashville. "The students that came over were exceptional advocates. Seeing your government close-up is always helpful to a citizen. And it was great for me to get their perspectives as future social workers," she says.

The bill itself, which was to have appeared on the Senate's April 20 docket, allocates $25 million toward a bolstered Pre-K program. Hagood says she and other advocates rolled the bill for three weeks to add amendments requiring yearly progress assessments, value-added assessments and a longitudinal study. "Basically, the bill entails expanding the pilot program through a grant process through the Department of Education. So, faith-based organizations, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and public school systems will be able to apply for them. We're encouraging that public-private cooperation," says Hagood.

Tennessee's current rank of 48th in education nationally might seem to call for immediate passage of the bill, but some legislators have their qualms. Mapson says, "Some people are hesitant to use the lottery funds for this, because that was intended for college scholarships, but we have to start educating kids when they are young so they can get into college one day." Indeed, the deluge of freshman applicants with lottery scholarships has caused UT's admission standards to skyrocket.

The Pre-K bill may have enough support to be pushed through despite legislators' concerns. "I think it has a pretty good chance," says Mapson. "The governor is behind it as well as many legislators."

The UT social work students' grades won't depend on whether the bill passes, but they still eagerly anticipate the outcome.

"We've all learned about advocating in class before," Brewer says, "but we've never had a chance to get out there and do it. I personally learned that I really enjoy social policy and that you really can make a difference."

Five years ago, a tragic event in Townsend gave Blount County residents Shawna McConnell and Lisa Youst a call to arms. A 14-year-old girl gave birth to her daughter alone at home, after concealing the pregnancy. The girl shut the infant in a box and deserted it in a neighbor's shed. After the neighbor discovered the deceased baby, the teenager was eventually charged with first-degree murder.

Horrified, McConnell and Youst earned the support of some state officials and helped pass Tennessee's Safe Haven Law, which allows a woman to surrender her newborn within 72 hours of its birth to any local hospital or medical center, without fear of prosecution, or persecution for that matter. Since the law's effective date of July 1, 2001 there have been no newborn slayings or unsafe abadonments in Blount County, and there has been one confirmed surrender.

Several months after the Townsend incident, an organization called A Secret Safe Place for Newborns formed in Blount County to spread awareness of the new law, and to open a 24-hour help line. This past January, the program extended into Knox County, and it now boasts several officers and 32 task force members.

The Knox County branch was made possible by a grant that allowed for an executive director position. Shannon McCloud jumped at the chance to fill the opening.

McCloud now works to extend the program throughout the state. "Knox County was one of the counties the board of directors chose as our initial target counties," she says.

The Knox chapter now works to educate all area hospitals, health clinics and birthing centers about the possibility of a drop-off and  the procedures for such an event.

Estimates have it the average mother who abandons a baby is 18 or 19 years old, thus creating a need among college-aged kids, says Knox County Task Force Chair Amy Rummel. "It could be that they're freshmen in college, and they're thinking, 'This is just not happening.'"

"We want to...inform every young woman that she has this safe and legal option," says McCloud. "We don't want any young women who are scared and desperate to feel that they have no other choice but to leave a newborn to die somewhere."

Though many in the community applaud the program and its purpose, its alliance with the anti-abortion movement could be perceived as encouragement to malleable young women to choose abandonment rather than termination of pregnancy.

"I think anything's an alternative to abortion," says Rummel, though she says abandoning a child is "a last resort."

Corinne Rovetti, family nurse practitioner and co-director of the Knoxville Center for Reproductive Health, is impressed with the program, but not with its implications on abortion.

"It's important that these two options don't negate each other," she says. "Both services are very important and needed in our society. I feel very strongly that if a woman or young girl does not want to be pregnant, she can terminate her pregnancy if that is her choice."

Rovetti says that young girls may hide their pregnancies because of incomplete sexual educations. "If a young girl finds she's been missing [menstrual] periods, suspects she might be pregnant and doesn't know what her options or resources are, she pushes it out of her mind easily. Adolescents who are just learning about all the changes in their bodies often don't know how to deal with unpredictable outcomes, and so then desperation leads them to desperate acts."

Rummel says that A Secret Safe Place for Newborns allows for not only the rescue of a child, but also of the mother. "It saves them from a lifelong guilt, and it also protects them from prosecution... This is not a one-time thing. It's always going to be an option that's needed, and we want to educate all women of childbearing age."

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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