This petite teenager nods in agreement at the sad recap of her childhood. Yes, she was pregnant in her eighth-grade school photo. Yes, that baby's father was about 30 years old. Yes, she got an order of protection against him after he hit her. Yes, she has a mental illness. Yes, she was a victim of abuse as she bounced among relatives and schools. Yes, she has committed a few violent acts of her own. Yes, she was 13, pregnant and became homeless after her aunts and cousins kicked her out.
But she balks at any suggestion she is an example of kids having kids.
"I never was a kid," she says.
Now, having just celebrated her 17th birthday, the young mom smiles as she hugs her toddler with the big eyes and one missing earring and heads back inside to show off her daughter to guests at the annual Family and Friends Day celebration at Bartlett's Casa Imani, the Maryville Academy group home for pregnant girls and young moms with mental illnesses who are wards of the state.
As horrific as that teen's tale sounds, it's typical for the 14 young moms, their 14 babies, and the four pregnant girls from across Illinois currently living in the two Casa Imani homes on these bucolic grounds, says Evelyn Smith, Maryville's division administrator for residential services. Each girl has a small room that resembles a college dorm, and 24-hour-a-day supervision, guidance and help from 16 devoted staff members.
"A lot of our kids' babies' fathers are in their 30s," says Smith, who lives in Glendale Heights and has been working with troubled kids for 21 years. Some of these girls used sex simply to get affection. Some used sex as a means of support, sometimes under the direction of family members.
"A lot of them are running away, and prostituting themselves is the way they live," Smith says. "That's love for them."
Born with only three strikes against them would be an improvement for these girls. Smith tells of one child who lived in 14 other foster placements and answered to 251 designated caregivers in a single year before she ended up in Maryville's Bartlett homes. Success for these young moms, just as it for the girls with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities who live in the neighboring Casa Salama homes, is sometimes measured in the smallest of victories.
"We have to be open to all of the possibilities and keep them from sliding off the curb," says Rocco A. Cimmarusti, program director of Casa Salama.
"It's a tough population. They have sad histories of trauma," admits Susan Miller, a Lombard resident who has been working with children since 1976 and is approaching her sixth year as program director for Casa Imani, which means "House of Faith."
Miller is preparing for Casa Imani's next and youngest resident, a blonde girl who Miller says "looks like a Barbie doll." That child lost her mom at age 4 and her grandparent guardians died the following year. Since then, she's bounced around foster homes, became pregnant at 11 and now is a 12-year-old mom.
The goal for that girl, as it is for all the residents, is to teach her how to care for herself and her baby, be a good mother, get an education, find a job and be able to grow into a productive member of society, Smith says.
"We are here to teach them how to cope. They have to be able to live outside of here," says Donita Fuller, an evening supervisor who commutes more than two hours each way to Casa Imani from her home in Merrillville, Ind. "I definitely consider them children. They continue to learn."
As a 38-year-old mom with a teenage son, Fuller says she knows firsthand that motherhood is a "learning experience" no matter how old the mom. "I'm still asking for help from my mom," Fuller says with a laugh.
The 17-year-old girl with the toddler understands that the state considers her a child for whom it is responsible, and that she must be responsible for her child.
"I'm a mother," the girl says, "but at the same time, I'm a teenager."
She has spent three years at Casa Imani and has made enough progress that she is scheduled to move into a foster home at the end of this month.
"I'm pretty excited," she says. "I just want to get a job and keep going to school. If I can do stuff on my own, I won't have to use the system."
If she hadn't found a home at Casa Imani, "I would have probably been gangbanging, probably be in jail," the young mom says. Instead, she says she has a "nice" boyfriend she met in high school, and wants to get married and add to her family.
"But not right now," she notes. "I want to wait until I get to college. I want to work in a place like this."