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Jennifer Ditta, MSW ’00

Jennifer Ditta.

It's a Girl

Alumni lay welcome mat to motherhood for troubled teens

“As a field educator, it’s so important to me to use that time with an intern to start them on the path that social workers need to follow if we’re going to make the difference that we need to make. ”

By Jim Bisco

Jennifer Ditta, MSW ’00, is mother to an 8- and 5-year-old at home. At work, she plays parent to eight teenagers at a residence called the Second Chance Home on Buffalo’s East Side.

"Jen is the mom and dad at Second Chance and balances natural consequences, balances trauma-informed histories and understanding their own stories that they bring to the table that affects our story for that day," says Kim Morris, MSW ’03, executive director of Homespace, which provides services to 14-to-21-year-old pregnant and parenting young ladies and a small population of non-parenting who are placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect.

Second Chance, a Homespace program that Ditta manages, is a congregate care group home for mothers or about-to-be mothers, generally between ages 14 and 18. The residents come from troubled families. “It's very challenging to gain trust enough to help them make the significant changes they need to in their lives and also to teach new philosophies about parenting because they don't see how they were parented as inappropriate, and they're going to try to repeat those things,” observes Ditta. “If we don't try to change that cycle, the same things will happen to their children.”

The girls in the programs have varied histories — abuse, neglect, some both — as well as Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) and juvenile delinquency charges, according to Ditta. She says there is a high level of need for structure and consistency, especially for mental health services, counseling and/or psychiatric support because most of them have not had a successful track record with any of those services provided.

When the girls are placed in foster care, they are required to have regular hearings in family court so the judge is kept apprised of their progress in schooling, counseling and parenting programs.

Through the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, a petition is supposed to be filed for the termination of the parents’ rights. If the mother in the program is a child who is supposed to be going home to live with her parents and they have not progressed toward their goal, that parent could lose their rights to that child.

“Where it does come into play more frequently with our girls is with their children,” says Ditta. “If there are issues in their care of their child, they could lose custody of their children, and their child could go into foster care. That’s when that [ASFA] clock starts. It’s even more pressure on that mom to get things together so that she could get her children back.”

In working in foster care and adoption, Ditta was always drawn to the teens. “They were always seen as the most challenging and difficult, but I always saw them as just people who needed someone to listen a bit more. I also found that being consistent with them got me much, much further than other caseworkers who would try to just push programs on them.”

Ditta is grateful for her experience at the SSW. “I felt like most of my hands-on learning came from my SSW field placements,” she says. “Now as a field educator, it’s so important to me to use that time with an intern to start them on the path that social workers need to follow if we’re going to make the difference that we need to make.”

The SSW’s trauma-informed approach is a critical component of life at Second Chance. “There is such a strong need for the girls in our program to have that structure and consistency, but it can at times re-traumatize them to not have someone also giving them the understanding they need if they’re going to progress,” Ditta maintains. “They’re going to learn to make better choices and to resolve some of their trauma.”

She considers her current SSW intern, Clare Borowiak, as being very helpful in training staff on trauma-informed care. “She’s been such an asset to us in understanding some of the behaviors of the girls and what their needs are, even though she’s a student.”

Ditta’s passion is to help the residents address their needs and trauma to make their lives better. She emphasizes the importance of family in encouraging the girls to use healthy, appropriate supports.

“Part of it is being a mom and the joy that I’ve had with the experience of being a parent,” she relates. “I could never do this work without the support of my family. I still tear up when I tell the girls what to expect when they first hold their baby. That helps to motivate me.”

Originally published in Mosaics, Fall 2014