Parents Too Soon is the nation's first coordinated, statewide assault on the complex problem of children having children. This multi-faceted initiative, mandated in 1983 by Illinois Governor James R. Thompson, is designed to reduce teenage pregnancy and to mitigate its negative consequences: health risks to mothers and infants, high rates of infant mortality, economic dependency, interrupted education, and premature parenting.
Parents Too Soon coordinates and sponsors more than 125 community-based projects that serve pregnant or parenting teens. The Illinois Department of Public Health, and Public, Children and Family Services, two leading public interest government agencies, have forged a critical relationship that defines the organization of Parents Too Soon. Instead of a single lead agency, each of the departments assumes a portion of the program's responsibilities and management. Private sector investors have also become committed supporters of this initiative, providing substantial financial support each year. Another key to the program's success is the principle of real partnership with local citizens, who design programs to meet the unique needs of their own communities. Programs funded by Parents Too Soon can be found in county public health centers, hospitals, public schools, church-affiliated service centers, social services, and mental health agencies.
Young parents are offered many support services through the various agencies coordinated by Parents Too Soon. Three different service frameworks operate to address the needs of teen parents and at-risk youth: traditional social services, health services and educational services. Parents Too Soon sponsors 22 family-planning clinics, 26 prenatal programs, and 27 parent support programs throughout the states. Two other major programs funded by Parents Too Soon are deigned to equip teenage mothers on welfare with the job skills necessary to leave public assistance and establish economic viability.
In its effort to achieve its three stated goals, reducing the incidence of teenage pregnancy, reducing the health risks associated with teenage pregnancy, and supporting teenagers' ability to cope with the responsibilities of parenthood, Parents Too Soon has established preventative measures as well as comprehensive support services. Parents Too Soon has launched a rigorous public education campaign called "Speaking for Ourselves." Testimonials brought to television viewers, radio listeners, and public transportation passengers, feature real teenagers speaking frankly about the harsh realities of having become parents too soon. Locally controlled and community-approved school-based clinics have been started across the State. "Project Advance," a youth group focused on reaching at-risk teens, is another integral component of the prevention project. The program will aim to improve the stress management skills, self-esteem, and goal-setting abilities of adolescents.
Parents Too Soon measures its progress with three indices: birth weight of babies born to parents who received services, infant mortality in the communities served by Parents Too Soon programs, and repeat pregnancies among teen parents who received services. State Health Department reports indicate that Parents Too Soon seems to have reduced the statistics on all three counts. The most significant impact seems to have been made in the repeated pregnancy category. In programs sponsored by Parents Too Soon, rates of repeat pregnancies have been as low as 2 percent, compared to the staggering one in three teen births on a state level.
The State of Illinois and Parents Too Soon have set an impressive precedent for teen pregnancy prevention and support for the nation. The program's extraordinary inter-agency government cooperation, the scope of its impact, public-private sector collaboration, and its ability to make a critical mass of citizens aware and concerned about the problem of teenage pregnancy in Illinois have set Parents Too Soon apart from similar initiatives.