It’s hard work, and there are failures, but the team at Taonga has a growing list of success stories behind them. There’s the TPU’s academic record. The girls who learn to be strong mothers and don’t lose their babies to state care. The young mums with jobs or in further education. The young couples who make it together as parents. The annual school ball. The netball team. The girls who won Duke of Edinburgh Hillary Gold Awards and shook hands with Prince Edward. The young mum who was offered a Max Foundation management traineeship after she spoke at those awards, but chose instead to get a degree and become a nurse.
And of course, there is the 16-year-old who raised two-children and went on to become an excellent early childhood educator. Looking back, Carly Pickett says Taonga’s mix of education and childcare, along with health, social support and life skills has shaped the person she is today.
“As a 16-year-old, it was a huge relief to realise I was not the only one going through this, “she says. “From the moment I started it was very empowering. I could talk to people I could trust, and not be judged.”
She gained confidence as a parent and finished her school education. Her son thrived in Taonga’s adjoining early childhood centre and that made a big impact on Carly; when Taonga opened Kakano; its second early childhood centre, she applied for a position on the staff. Erana says that Carly’s youth was cause for some hesitation, but her dedication won her a trial and she has never looked back. “She has turned out to be a brilliant childhood educator and we are glad that we took that chance, “says Erana.
Carly says she now sees herself as someone who has “come through and made it”. She is glad she can support other young parents through her work, aware that she is a role model not only for them but also for her own two children.
“It’s important to me that they know that if you want to get places in life, you have to keep learning and keep working.”
Growing strong, young mums
Amidst the noise, colour and chaos that only pre-schoolers can create, 23-year-old Carly Pickett is both hard at work and right at home.
She is six months away from completing a Bachelor of Teaching and Learning in early childhood education, and has put herself through her degree by working at Kakano Early Childhood Centre in Manurewa. She’s a high achiever and post-graduate study towards a Master’s degree is a possibility.She’s also a mother of two children, aged four and seven. Like many of the young mums whose children she works with, Carly became a mother as a teenager.
Pregnant at 15, Carly dropped out of school. Although she had good support from family and close friends, she struggled with the stigma and the suddenly limited choices of being a teenager with a baby.
“I was very isolated. My friends were out doing teenage stuff and buying clothes, and I was saving for nappies and paying off a car seat.”
At 16, with no qualifications except NCEA level 1, an eight-month-old son and a full-time but dead-end job, Carly saw nothing in the future that was going to give her son the life she wanted for him.
That’s when she turned to Taonga Education Centre Charitable Trust – a Manurewa-based organisation which has for the past 10 years worked to support and strengthen teenage parents, their children and the wider community.
The Taonga Trust
New Zealand has the second highest teenage birth rate among the world’s developed countries. In 2009 there were 4,670 births to New Zealand teenagers.
In Manukau City around 630 teenagers give birth each year. However, it was not statistics but the plight of three homeless and disengaged teenage mums at Christmas 2001 which sowed the seed that grew into Manurewa’s Taonga Education Centre Charitable Trust.
In offering to help the girls, a handful of Manurewa Mäori Women’s Welfare League members uncovered a problem that they could not walk away from, and the Taonga Trust was born.
“We went to the Manukau City Council, and set up an alternative education programme at the Clendon Community Centre,” says Taonga chairperson Anne Candy. “The council set aside eight spaces at the crèche so teen mums could go back to school.”
As word got out, demand rapidly grew beyond capacity. At the same time, it was obvious that education and childcare would only go so far. Many of the young mums faced multiple and complicated issues. Health care, housing, income, parenting skills, life skills and social issues including domestic violence, incest or rape all needed to be taken care of.
“We told a meeting of government agencies that we needed to expand but had no resources,” says Taonga chief executive Erana Doolan.
The Manukau City Council’s Community Development committee agreed to cover building rent and overheads.
“And it was Isabel Evans, MSD’s regional commissioner, who said straight away that MSD would put some money in the bucket,” says Erana. “We will never forget that – she made the commitment that day to keep the initiative going, and from that point others joined the whakapapa – Te Puni Kökiri, Health, Education.”
The Taonga Trust
Today, Taonga runs a multi-faceted programme, whose strength depends on the collaboration of health workers, teachers, social workers, community workers, volunteers and a range of government agencies.
Vulnerable and unsupported teen parents and their children can face a multitude of disadvantages. New Zealand studies show that compared with women who had not become mothers by age 21, teen mothers are:
• nine times more likely to have no qualifications
• twice as likely to suffer from major depression
• twice as likely to be substance dependent
• three times more likely to be suicidal at times
• and three times more likely to be dependent on a benefit.
But teen parents can do well, especially when they have good support from a range of practitioners working together.
“With the issues that these girls are going through, without everyone doing their job every way to help them. These girls would not be as successful, “says Erana. “It’s like a wheel. If you take out one spoke, the wheel breaks.”
The original school for eight young mums at the community centre is now a purpose-built Teen Parent Unit (TPU) for 30, funded by the Ministry of Education and hosted by James Cook High School. The academic results of the TPU catch and in some cases out-do the high school
Taonga runs the adjoining early childhood Centre – Potiki – for the children of the young mums at the unit. Mums and kids transported to and from home in mini-buses.
“We also realised that most of our teen mums had no relationships with health professionals, “says Anne. “No GP had a history of them or their children because of the kind of lifestyles they had grown up with.”
With the support of the Counties Manukau District Health Board, Taonga opened a health unit adjoining the TPU, employing an on-site nurse as well as a community health worker and a vehicle to take young mums and their children to health appointments.
Two Ministry of Social Development-funded social workers support the young mums to overcome personal issues that prevent them from succeeding as parents and students.
A second early early childhood centre – Kakano – opened in 2007 and is based in the community to support local pre-schoolers, young mums moving into tertiary study or work, and children of teen parents who are not part of the Teen Parent Unit.
“We had one student who got into tech three times, but she kept pulling out,” says Erana. “It’s a big thing to go into tertiary studies anyway, but to put her baby in a whole new centre – she just couldn’t do it. When Kakano opened, her child moved there. Now she’s in her third year of a nursing degree.” Both the early childhood centres have cooks on the staff.
“We make sure the babies get all their nutritional needs met during their day with us,” says Anne. “That’s in case they go home at the end of the day and there’s not much there.”
Oranga Tamariki is involved with a number of Taonga’s young parents, so a close working relationship is important. The nearby Clendon Work and Income service centre is another key partner. Taonga has also formed a good relationship with Housing New Zealand, after initially approaching the local office because teen mum’s were struggling to get interviews for houses. “They’ve assigned a staff member to work with our mum’s, and that has been positive and empowering, “says Anne.
Until recently, supported housing for the most vulnerable young mothers and babies was a missing spoke in Taonga’s “wheel”, but in January this year Te Whare O Taonga opened to fill that gap.
Housing is a major issue for teen parents, especially those with little family support or resources. Many end up in unsafe or overcrowded conditions.
“Some have families who are really supportive, then you have some that don’t – they’re living in a culture of drink, or violence, and they are really at risk, “says Rhonda.
“And some are just simply too young to be living on their own. One of my girls is only 13, and her partner is 12. “If we can bring them into a supported environment, they can bond with their baby, learn the routines of home and parenting and we can get them ready to reintegrate into the community, “says Rhonda.
Te Whare is one of seven Ministry of Social Development-funded supported houses set up in high-need areas across New Zealand since 2010. It is a large rented house in Manukau, home to five mums and their babies. The youngest, aged 14, has just given birth to a little girl.
One of the motherly hands at the helm of Te Whare is Whaea Debbie. She’s a former youth worker, mother of six, grandmother and early childhood carer, so she’s well qualified to be Te Whare’s house mother. It’s a round the-clock job, whether Debbie is teaching the group to cook a bacon egg pie, helping a new mum with breast feeding, or rolling play-dough snakes.
The household functions as a family, preparing and eating meals together, caring for the kids, sharing chores, working out the weekly spend on groceries. Every day the young mum’s are learning lessons that will help them to stand on their own.
Intensive case worker
Out in the Manurewa community, Taonga’s intensive case worker Rhonda Tautari works with vulnerable teen parents who are not part of the Teen Parent Unit.
She’s been involved with Taonga since she knocked on the door as a social work student doing a group project in 2000, and became the organisations first social worker in 2007. Now she’s one of 19 teen parent case workers in high-need communities around New Zealand. The Ministry of Social Development-funded case workers are one part of a $14.9 million investment which also targets support for teen fathers, and supported housing for vulnerable teen parents and their kids.
Rhonda gets to know the young parents and their whanau in their homes, and links them with support from antenatal care to parenting programmes, education, housing, budgeting and benefit support. She also makes sure that their children get health care and access to early childhood education.
Rhonda understands the stigma, isolation and insecurity many of her young clients grapple with, but she also expects to be met halfway as they develop confidence, a sense of direction and start to take more responsibility.
Often her work involves whole whanau, taking one step at a time so that home is a safer place for both teenager and baby. “I walk that journey alongside them, “she says.