Free infant care center is a safety net for teen parents, allowing them to stay in school

Irmony Sneed gathered her toddler son Joziah’s belongings on a recent afternoon, weaving his arms through his coat and leading him out into the hallway where tiny backpacks and even tinier shoes are stacked inside cubbyholes.

It was 3:15 p.m. and she’d been awake since 4:30 a.m. to get them both ready for school. The next day, she’ll do it all over again.

Sneed, 18, is one of 10 moms enrolled at Thornton Township District 205’s Blanche Foxworthy Infant Care Center in suburban Harvey, 23 miles south of Chicago.

For more than 25 years, the teen parents in District 205 have had the option to drop off their babies at the center during the day to continue attending high school instead of dropping out due to a lack of child care.

The free program, licensed by the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services, appears to be one of only two in the state where a child care center is an extension of services for students funded by a school district. A similar program was created in Joliet Township High School District 204 and is dubbed “our sister center” by teachers in District 205’s program.

Sneed got pregnant with Joziah when she was 16. He’s about to turn 2 and already knows big words like “basketball.”

“He’s a boy — he’s rough, he’s energetic, he’s smart — definitely smart,” Sneed said. “When he wants certain things, he talks very well, like he’ll say ‘juice cup,’ which means he wants juice in his cup.”

The center in Harvey — a small modular school building — has three child care rooms: Tiny Travelers for babies 6 weeks to 1 year old, Blooming Butterflies for 1 to 2 year olds, and Little Explorers for the sweet spot between ages 2 and 4.

While the moms are busy taking biology and English, their babies are flipping through picture books, learning shapes and colors and playing musical games in circle time.

Sneed said she enjoys watching Joziah “in his element,” interacting with other babies and developing a personality that’s his own.

“I’m still a kid deep down inside … so, I actually love it — I’ll be right behind him,” Sneed said. “You want to play with the ball, let’s play. You want to box, OK, let’s box. I’m still a kid; it’s fun actually.”

But parenting as a teenager can also feel lonely, she said, especially as she’s grown out of friendships.

“I had a best friend, and we used to do everything together; but I’m a mom now, and this comes before going out,” Sneed said. “Even money-wise, baby needs diapers, so diapers come first before friends. … We don’t have anything in common besides being the same age or going to the same school.”

Sneed said when she discovered she was pregnant, she was shocked and scared. Her stepmom, she recalled, noticed how quickly she ran out of breath while taking out the trash.

After the initial gut-wrench upon seeing the two lines appear on a home pregnancy test, Sneed said she immediately went into autopilot. “I was like, OK, I just gotta do what I gotta do for myself and my baby and get on top of everything. I had to,” she said.

Sneed was a student at Bloom Trail High School in Chicago Heights when she was pregnant and shortly after Joziah’s birth. Her experience there wasn’t so great, she said.

She could pump milk only during her late lunch period and couldn’t maintain an adequate supply for Joziah. She ended up having to quit breastfeeding in fewer than five months, which drove up the cost of caring for her baby.

But since moving to District 205 in 2022, several aspects of her life — as a mom and as a high school student — have significantly improved. She found a second family in Candice Coleman, director of the Infant Care Center, who helps care for Joziah while she’s in class.

“I’ll go, Ms. Candice, here’s your baby!” Sneed said, adding, “Everything is OK. I don’t have to worry, and even after school when I come to pick him up, we laugh and play around — ‘Oh, Joziah did this today.’ It’s very, very, very supportive.”

Coleman said there’s a “foundational understanding” among the staff members of, “We’ve seen it all and we don’t judge you.”

“Our success is making them feel human — not less than,” Coleman said. “We’re their moms, nurses, counselors and teachers. We’re everything to them because some have no one else to turn to.”

The Infant Care Center is available to student parents who attend one of the three high schools in District 205: Thornridge, Thornton and Thornwood.

“The only caveat to that is that I monitor your grades and your attendance,” Coleman said. “I’m being very frank: You can’t drop your baby off here and think you’re about to go out in the street and kick it. Absolutely not. If you’re missing class and your baby is here, then I have a problem.”

The center’s lead teachers are paraprofessionals, aides staffed by District 205. The teachers try their best to provide the teen parents with tools to help them cope with the responsibility of having a child.

The reality is that the parents of the children attending the day care are still growing up themselves, Coleman said. The youngest parent at the Infant Care Center is 15 and was pregnant at age 14.

“If you think about a 14-year-old — that’s a kid who’s responsible for this baby that they have to feed and provide for,” Coleman said.

Sometimes, that reality really settles in. “We’ve seen it all over the years,” said Debra Ward-Mitchell, assistant director of the Infant Care Center.

Several years ago, one teen mom had set up an air mattress for her newborn baby to sleep in an area of her mom’s screened front porch, Ward-Mitchell said. “Because this baby had a baby, the mother made her live out there … on an air mattress, in the winter,” she said.

“I’ve seen a mom pass out here and then die of an aneurysm. … We’ve had four of our moms get shot and killed,” she added. “One of them, we still have their baby now.”

The baby whose mom died of an aneurysm also lost his father and was handed over to a woman who had helped raise his now-deceased mother. The mother didn’t have any family members who could step in because she was brought up in the state’s foster care system.

The center’s leaders asked social workers if they could keep the baby at the care center for an extra year so he could have continuity, Ward-Mitchell said. “All that baby knew was us,” she said.

Some critics in the community have accused the center of promoting teen pregnancy.

“When we try to set up a table at parent-teacher conferences or open houses, we get pushback from parents as if we’re promoting pregnancy or we’re promoting sex. That’s not what we’re doing,” Ward-Mitchell said.

“This district holds 5,000 kids, but if we’ve saved 22 of them just by providing this service, that’s OK for me,” Ward-Mitchell said. “There are countless ones who come back and say, I wouldn’t have been able to go to school if it wasn’t for the center or I wouldn’t have been able to do this or that.”

Coleman said she’s busy planning an end-of-year “mommy and me” picture day, on top of the daily grind of stocking up on snacks, diapers and laundry items.

“We have a system. If you need me to wash your clothes, drop some off and we will wash and fold them — and we do it very discreetly,” she said. “We’ve had girls who haven’t taken a shower, so I have a whole closet full of things, underwear, pads, Bath & Body Works (products). We don’t know what they’re going through at home, but when they come here, we want them to feel safe.”

Arguably one of the most helpful supports the program provides is the no-cost, door-to-door transportation for the student parents and their children.

A bus picks up each parent and child from their front door. The children are dropped off at the Infant Care Center before the teen parents are taken to their respective schools. After school, the buses take the parents to retrieve their children at the center and take them all home.

The program is designed to provide a support system for teenage parents and prevent them from falling behind regardless of the circumstances that led them to early parenthood, whether it’s sexual activity that resulted in unplanned pregnancies or, in some cases, sexual abuse.

“First, we can’t always assume that all of these pregnancies are consensual,” said Ashley Mulvihill, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois Chicago. “Most of those pregnancies are unplanned. Teenagers are already a really vulnerable population, now going through this very stressful experience of being pregnant. There’s just so many layers and systems that you’re expecting a teen to have to navigate that are incredibly complex.”

Several studies indicate that young mothers face increased rates of depression during and after pregnancy, compared with older mothers. Problems are more pervasive in higher risk groups such as teenagers who lack support or struggle with existing psychological distress, as well as those from a lower socioeconomic status or from a historically marginalized population, Mulvihill noted.

Still, teen pregnancy rates have been dropping in the United States, studies show, amid a continued focus on adolescent pregnancy as a social and public health concern.

Mulvihill said the stigmas faced by teenage mothers coupled with existing mental health concerns can be staggering if not dealt with appropriately. One of her patients at UIC’s outpatient psychiatry unit is an 18-year-old who is pregnant.

“She has history of trauma and a history of sexual assault. She’s struggling in traditional schooling and going to a therapeutic school. … A lot of the cards are just stacked against these teens when they become pregnant,” Mulvihill said. “(My patient) was actually asking about a program similar to the infant care center — she’s really concerned about her situation.”

Mulvihill said pregnant teenagers have a host of things to consider: If they want to keep the baby, how do they make it work? What does this mean for their schooling and their financial situation?

Psychologically, teen parents need support, Mulvihill said — from their peers, their parents, adult role models and mentors.

Ward-Mitchell and Coleman mentor the young women whose children they care for. They empower them when no one else does, and allow them the space to grow, Ward-Mitchell said.

“Every day, every morning we greet them: ‘Good morning!’ But sometimes they come in and just say, ‘I’m really hungry,’” Ward-Mitchell said. “I say, ‘OK, I can get you something to eat, I can do this.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I just need $5.’ Yup, I can do that too. Don’t abuse it, but we’re here for you.”

For Sneed, the Infant Care Center not only allows her to go to school, it also enables her to create a routine for herself and Joziah, which might be a bigger triumph than graduating in May with mostly A’s and B’s, she said.

Before it was time to go home, Joziah was coloring the number eight with a jumbo green crayon in Ms. Jasmine’s Blooming Butterflies class, next to 1-year-old Aaliyah, who was determined to color on everyone else’s paper too.

After they hop off the bus, Sneed will start preparing for the next day, checking if anything needs to be swapped out of each backpack and laying out clothes for the morning. By 9:30 p.m., both she and Joziah are usually asleep.

From the looks of it, Sneed is mature beyond her years — likely out of necessity rather than a personality trait. She said the sleepless nights when Joziah was a newborn were frustrating, but even as a then-17-year-old, she managed to get up every two hours to feed, pump and pat the baby back to sleep.

It’s important to note that teens are just as capable of loving an infant as older moms are, Mulvihill said.

“In my experience, over time most of them really do want to be their best selves and the best moms, and they do care a lot about their babies,” she said. “They just need a lot of help.”