At about 10:00 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, a young woman, Sara Walters, knocks on the door of a row house on Fremount Avenue in West Baltimore. Responding, 17-year-old Tanya Smith answers; folded in her arms is her son–one-month old Tony. Mother and son are both crying.
Sara will soon discover that each is crying for a different reason: Tony is hungry; his mother is overwhelmed–and angry. A victim of child abuse herself, she is on the edge of abusing her own child.
Sara is a volunteer for Parents Aides Nurturing and Discovering with Adolescents (PANDA). PANDA is a program created by Parents Anonymous of Maryland. It is a statewide nonprofit organization of parents, children and family care professionals who have joined together to find answers to the problems of child abuse. Finding answers begins with questions. Sara asks Tanya, “Do you hold the baby when you feed him?”
“Sometimes I just prop the bottle in the crib.”
“You have to remember that Tony is still very little. He can’t call out to you if the bottle falls, or if he gets too much and he chokes. Also it’s soothing and comforting to him if you hold him.”
“But I get so upset with him. When he wakes up at night I’m tired. So I just prop the bottle. He’s just bad and he makes me mad!”
It is the Tanyas of the world–bewildered and frustrated at the circumstances they suddenly find themselves in and taking out that anger on what (more often “who”) they perceive as the source of their frustration that PANDA seeks to reach, with one-on-one, in-home counseling, support groups and a special emphasis on nurturing. Executive director for Parents Anonymous is Elaine Fisher; program coordinator for PANDA is Bonnie Elward. Long term, the program, which is modeled after similar Parents Anonymous programs around the country, seeks to prevent repeat pregnancies, promote academic achievement and parenting skills, and improve the level of self-esteem among adolescent parents.
Historically, while not everyone who was abused becomes abusive, most parents who abuse their children have had difficult childhoods; they respond to their children’s cries for help in a destructive way–as their own parents did. It is at this point that PANDA intervenes–looking to break the cycle.
Society is just beginning to recognize that many negative social behaviors of children–delinquency, substance abuse, poor school performance, learning and emotional disabilities, running away, dropping out of school, pregnancy out of wedlock–may be the consequences of having been abused.
How well does the PANDA program work? During its three years in operation, a similar program in Prince George’s County has served 100 teens and their children. Among these teens, there are only two repeat pregnancies. The majority of these teens returned to school, finished school, or completed their GED, and several went on to enroll in college or job training programs. It costs Parents Anonymous approximately $1,000 to provide its services to each child; it costs approximately $30,000 to house one prisoner.
By providing care to Tanya, the PANDA volunteers are helping to assure that her baby son, Tony, will never need them.