Health News

Jun 20, 2011 1:16 AM by Dr. Anya Winslow

Teaching teen dads to parent

Some men are propelled into fatherhood much earlier than expected.

Sixteen-year-old Michael Gutierrez celebrates his first Father's Day. He knows he has a lot to learn.

"They teach you not to shake your baby. They tell you what could happen. They try to talk to you so you could understand better what could happen...the outcome of you shaking your baby or getting angry at your baby," says Gutierrez.

El Paso County Department of Human Services sees a connection between young men, 15-24, and cases of abusive head trauma and/or shaken baby syndrome resulting in infant death. The fatalities* are staggering and are the highest in the state - five in 2009, two in 2010, and we are only half way through 2011 and there have already been three.

"If a person hasn't had skills given to them about how to care for infants, and a child is doing what children do, which is be fussy or cry, a young man who hasn't had that experience is more likely to get very frustrated," says program manager for The Center on Fathering Ken Sanders.

"They will turn to physical injury of a child, not thinking they're trying to hurt the child, per se, they are trying to get the child to stop doing what the child's doing," he adds.

That is where the Center on Fathering, a program of the El Paso County Department of Human Services, steps in. It received a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Children's Trust Fund to make the ProDads program possible.

The program, which is six months old, is targeted at young men, aged 11-14 and 15-19. The majority of their referrals come from the Juvenile Probation system, but anyone in the community can seek their help.

Currently, there are two graduates of the program, and seven are enrolled. After asking Gutierrez, who is attending the class because it was mandated by his parole officer, how he feels about himself by participating in the class, he says, "I feel better about myself coming here...I never talk about my feelings. I just like to keep them bottled up. When I'm here, I can talk about my feelings, and I feel comfortable doing that."

The other students in the class agree and also feel liberated coming here. "Communication is the most important thing we've learned here," says seventeen-year-old Lucas Ephron.

Parenting lessons are hitting home for these guys, too. "It's not worth to shake your baby. You can leave him mentally disabled," adds eighteen-year-old father, Manuel Ramos.

Their experience culminates in taking care of an infant doll for thirty-six hours, which mimics many of the same functions a typical infant does - from needing diaper changes, to feeding, to crying. The doll records their every move - if they have been violently shaken or left unattended crying for a long while. The fathers have to wear wristbands, which record all the data.

Together with their case worker, they review their performance. "We have dads say that's the longest thirty-six hours they've ever spent," says Sanders.

The doll is a tool for these young fathers "to [learn how to] be emotionally connected to the child and understand when a child cries, they're crying for a reason. As a parent, our job is to figure out what is that reason," says Sanders.

The dads are having positive experiences. As eighteen-year-old Ramos says, "I have a good relationship with my son...where I communicate with him, instead of spanking him...umm...[and] how to control my anger."

Hopefully, this program will not only help drive down the infant fatality numbers due to abusive head trauma and/or shaken baby syndrome, but it will also foster the next generation of children to also be better parents.

*These fatalities were all caused by men between 15 and 24.

**Nationally, shaken baby syndrome is estimated to be 50,000 cases each year, and 25% of infants with shaken baby syndrome die.



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