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Editorial: Maternal Care; Hannah House Closes Its Residence

Hannah House’s recent decision to close its residential program in Lebanon for young mothers and their children cannot help but stir mixed emotions. The 25-year-old program has decided to shut its doors in part because of a drop in demand for its services. This results from declining rates of teenage pregnancy — certainly a welcome development. Yet teen pregnancy is far from disappearing altogether, and the end of Hannah House’s residential program will almost certainly leave some young mothers underserved or unserved.

There is no such ambivalence in recognizing how well Hannah House has served pregnant and parenting teens and young adults for the past quarter century. It’s hard to overestimate the importance of getting young families who face special challenges off to a good start. As staff writer Aimee Caruso reported in the Dec. 9 Sunday Valley News, more than 600 young mothers and 650 children have been served by a program that attempts to equip young mothers with the skills they’ll need to meet demands that even more established families can find overwhelming. Of course, the end of the residential program also means the loss of employment for nine full-time and several part-time employees, some of whom have been with the program for many years.

Hannah House staff members told Caruso that their board’s decision to end the residential program — scheduled for the end of this month — did not come as a shock. The number of young mothers referred to the program has fallen significantly, not just because fewer teenagers are getting pregnant, but also because New Hampshire and Vermont now prefer to place those young women in their communities — either with relatives or in foster homes. State referrals are half what they were just four years ago, and the six bedrooms in the house on Abbott Street where the young women stayed — in some cases for a couple of years — have often been empty. The organization has been coping with a budget deficit for some time now, and its financial challenges have been exacerbated most recently by payments from New Hampshire government that were less than originally promised.

Despite its impact on Hannah House, the states’ change in placement policy seems mostly sensible. Not only is it less expensive, but there can be obvious advantages to keeping young mothers in their communities, where they will remain in touch with the social network that they presumably will continue to depend on, at least occasionally.

But while those sorts of arrangements might work out well for the majority, they won’t serve all. In preparation for the impending closing of Hannah House, one 17-year-old mother of two was relocated to Keene to live in her mother’s house. But because those arrangements were judged to be unsuitable for infants, the mother was forced to relinquish custody of her 6-month-old and 21-month-old to foster care. And even for those mothers who find satisfactory living arrangements and services in their communities, it’s safe to assume that something will be lost by not having the opportunity to live in a home with other similarly situated families amid a nurturing, trained and committed staff.

Hannah House board members expect the organization to continue, although it is unclear in what form. Hilde Ojibway, an experienced director of nonprofit enterprises, has been hired as interim director to determine how Hannah House might continue to serve young families. Considering that the end of the residential program seems likely to affect the most vulnerable young mothers and children, the community has a considerable stake in the success of a reorganized Hannah House.