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A day with teenage parents opens eyes

(ran East, South)

Sometimes, all it takes to understand a complex community problem is to put human faces on it.

That was the hope of organizers who sponsored the first Child Watch Visitation on Tuesday, a daylong program for educators and officials "to increase awareness of the lack of parenting skills in teen parents," said Anne Anderson, president of the Junior League of St. Petersburg Inc., the program's local sponsor.

About 20 health teachers, supervisors and legislative aides saw firsthand the effects of poor prenatal care on newborns in the neonatal unit at All Children's Hospital.

At Operation PAR, a drug rehabilitation center, they heard teen mothers discuss their struggle with crack addiction.

They saw child care programs designed for working teen parents at the YWCA Drop-In Center and for those attending school at the Harris TIPS center.

The visitation was part of a national initiative of the Children's Defense Fund, a watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Twenty Junior Leagues in the United States participated in similar visitations as part of National Volunteer Week.

A specific issue that emerged in St. Petersburg was the need for informing the community about Shaken Baby Syndrome.

"There are simple things we can do to get the message across that it's never okay to shake a baby, even if it's just in play," said league president-elect Leslie Ann Smith, one of the program's co-chairwomen.

Peggy Johns, supervisor of health education for Pinellas County Schools, agreed. "A Shaken Baby Syndrome educational unit is a priority for us to develop at least as a high school component for Life Management Skills classes next year," Johns said.

Next year, organizers hope to host a similar program but with middle and high school students as participants.

"Our target audience is 11- to 18-year-olds," Smith said. "If you can get them to learn effective parenting skills at that age, they'll last a lifetime."