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NIAGARA FALLS – A group home for pregnant teenagers and young mothers opened here recently to help address a growing problem in the city, which has the second highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.

It is called “the CRIB” – which stands for Caring Responsible Independent Beginnings – and is run by Family and Children’s Services.

The organization decided to start the group home after seeing more and more youth coming to the door of Casey House, its transitional home for homeless teens, said Family and Children’s Services Director of Youth Services Jeffrey Wierzbicki.

“It was very hard to turn them away, but we just couldn’t let them stay overnight,” Wierzbicki said.

“A lot of it is generational,” he said of the youth homelessness. “When kids get to a certain age, their families don’t always take care of them, and they find themselves bouncing from house to house. I’ve seen kids as young as 12 years old who are on the streets. We’ve had kids at 17 years old who haven’t lived with their guardian for four of five years. A lot of it is dysfunction in the home.”

Wierzbicki said a large part of what the organization tries to do is break this cycle, including teen pregnancy.

“You’ll see a girl who is pregnant at 15, and her mom was pregnant at 14 or 15, and grandma was pregnant at 14. We’ve seen teens with multiple children. So it’s a cycle, and once they reach a certain age they are left to fend for themselves. There’s no guidance or direction,” he said.

Kenneth Sass, president and CEO of Family and Children’s Service said, “Our goal is to break the cycle of dysfunction in families where teen pregnancy is an issue.” He said their 12 years of work operating a Healthy Families program for expectant parents and parents of newborns and 18 years of experience of providing shelter services to runaway and homeless youth at Casey House made them “uniquely qualified” to operate a maternity group home in Niagara County.

Designed for safe and comfortable living, the house at 1622 Falls St. offers a total of 10 beds, for a combination of moms, babies and children, and was funded by an $180,000 federal grant from Health and Human Services. The group home provides counseling and positive role modeling, connections to medical care, budget management and parenting education to young women between ages 16 and 21. The young women can stay at the transitional home for up to 18 months.

Wierzbicki said one of the requirements of the voluntary program is to be attending school, GED classes or some type of job training. He said they sit down and do mock interviews, help them fill out applications, take them to job interviews and follow up with a phone call.

“With this shelter the goal is to teach them that they are better able to care for their children on their own because we want to eliminate the strain on county services they will be using as they get older,” Wierzbicki said. “From day one we start working on a plan, and the plan focuses on education, stability, responsibility and accountability. Through the time they are with us we want them to see that there is a better way. Our goal is self-sufficiency. The reward from getting their own paycheck and depositing in their own bank account is one most have never experienced.”

He said the kids have no one in their lives to act as role models. “These kids have been put down, most have been in trouble with the law. We try to teach them self-worth. We want them to see that there is a better way,” Wierzbicki said. “A lot of them don’t know how to care for children, and we have to teach them the basics.”

He said that despite the dysfunction, they do try to involve family as they go along.

The organization reaches out to doctors’ offices, school counselors, child protective services and probation in search of teens who could be placed in the group home.

Wierzbicki said they are also trying to address the issue of teen pregnancy with safe-sex programs for youth.

“We deal with kids ages 12 to 17 and estimate about 80 percent that come in have indicated to us that they are sexually active. We teach them to respect themselves and their bodies, and try to give them a different avenue to express themselves to other people, different activities other than going out and having sex,” Wierzbicki said.

For information or to make donations, contact the CRIB Maternity Group Home at 236-7870.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com