January 31, 2014 at 1:00 am

Program helps kids by helping moms be better parents

Helping mothers break the cycle of abuse
Helping mothers break the cycle of abuse: Expecting mother Darnella Miller, twice a victim of domestic violence, attends a parenting class offered by mentor Paris Rutledge at St. John's Hospital.

Darnella Miller takes three buses and a taxi to get from her house on Detroit’s west side to parenting classes on the east side. She goes every Wednesday, traveling hours each way, because she wants to get her children back.

Miller has made some mistakes, and she’s suffered some misfortunes. And now she’s trying to put her life together to make a better home for the baby who’s on the way, and three children she’s lost to foster care.

“I used to hang out with the wrong crowd. But as I’ve gotten older, the same people I was hanging around with, they’re not willing to change. And I can’t make them change, I can’t force them, so if they want to continue smoking their lives away, drinking their lives away, that’s on them,” said Miller, 24, who’s in school and works full time at a Taco Bell. “But I’m trying to get a better life. Not just for me, but for my children.”

Paris Rutledge is Miller’s mentor. A social worker assigned through St. John Providence Health System’s Infant Mortality Program, Rutledge visits Miller regularly, connects her with necessities such as transportation, educates her on basics such as nutrition, and gives her emotional support. The program also provides the parenting classes Miller attends, and prenatal support groups.

During one home visit, the conversation included car safety seats, fire evacuation plans and breast feeding, plus Miller’s need to find a primary care physician and a pediatrician before her daughter, to be named Miracle, is born in April. A nurse also visits.

“As your baby gets older, we will be doing screenings to be sure that your baby is developing appropriately,” Rutledge told Miller. “We’ll be doing screening every two months, and if you want, we’ll provide you with a copy of the score sheet that lets you know how your baby is doing.”

Rutledge, 53, has been working with women for 25 years. She began as a volunteer when Catholic nuns started the program.

A mother of three and a grandmother, Rutledge knows what’s involved in raising a child. A good part of her visit with Miller focuses on the importance of social support.

“I’ve never met anybody that doesn’t need somebody at some point,” Rutledge told Miller. “It’s not easy raising children, having children, and you do need support. You know, it has nothing to do with your love for your children, but everybody needs a break.”

Since 1986, the Infant Mortality program has had more than 1,600 babies born and only five infant deaths with no maternal deaths, according to Karen Gray-Sheffield, director of community health for St. John Providence. The majority of participants are African-American women between 16 and 27 years old, and 98 percent are single mothers living at or below the poverty line.Many have poor nutrition, sought prenatal care late and have no one to support them. They often lack a regular and nearby physician. Some have a history of domestic violence or homelessness, or chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

Programs that provide one-on-one support to moms have been shown effective in reducing health risks to infants. The WIN program (Women-Inspired Neighborhood Network), funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation, has trained six health care workers to provide support for women in Detroit’s Brightmoor, Osborn, and Chadsey-Condon neighborhoods. Of the first 155 babies born to program participants, there have been no infant deaths.

Miller, whose first child was born when she was 19, has been through this program before. She says she was prepared to care for her children, but they were taken away because she failed to protect them from their fathers — a mistake she vows not to repeat.

Her first two babies, a boy and a girl who will be 5 in February, were taken away by Child Protective Services after their father placed his boot atop the head of Miller’s daughter during an argument and threatened to crush her. The father was sentenced to nine to 20 years for assault and kidnapping, and will be eligible for parole in 2019.

“Fortunately, CPS had stepped in and they took my children away ... cause at that time he had a gun, he had a knife, and I was fearing for my life and my children’s lives and I was so scared of him I (didn’t) know what to do,” Miller recalled.

She met her third child’s father two years later, and gave birth to a son. Again, an argument turned violent.

“And of course ... when the police found out I had an open CPS case they end up taking the third baby,” Miller said.

In Detroit, nearly 14 percent of children live in families that have been referred to Child Protective Services for investigation of possible abuse or neglect. That compares with 9 percent of children statewide, according to state data provided by Kids Count in Michigan, part of a national project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to track the well-being of children in the U.S.

Rutledge said a good number of the moms she mentors are working through personal issues that have affected their ability to care for their children. She speaks with Miller in a soft, reassuring voice, and takes her time.

“My goal is to try to restore the mom’s faith in herself, the mom’s ability to love herself,” Rutledge said. “A lot of times ... we want to be loved, we want somebody, we want companionship, and I think sometimes we sacrifice a lot to have those relationships.

“A lot of our moms are from single-parent homes, don’t have relationships with their fathers ... and a lot of times people unfortunately prey on other people. So my goal is, No. 1, to have a healthy baby, and Mom has to feel good about herself to be there for her children who need her.”

Said Miller: “I have more confidence in myself to raise my children. I just want to raise my children by myself.”

Darnella Miller, 24, of Detroit is expecting her fourth child. She's taking parenting classes so she can get her three other kids out of foster care. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News