Studies show that children from single-parent households are more likely to live in poverty and are at greater risk for problems affecting their health, cognitive development and behavioral and academic success. But in North Carolina, a UNC School of Social Work program geared toward strengthening the relationships of unmarried, low-income parents could reverse those trends.
Strong Couples-Strong Children is a five-year, federally-funded initiative aimed at creating healthy relationships in fragile families by teaching communication, problem-solving and conflict management skills. Couples also receive in-home family support services and are linked to resources such as job training, community college and other educational options and affordable housing.
“Everybody needs basic communication skills to successfully negotiate a relationship,” said Anne Jones, a School clinical associate professor and the project’s lead investigator. Jones received a grant of nearly $2.5 million to fund the study.
Two Durham County agencies—Public Health and Cooperative Extension Services—partnered with the School and recruited nine couples for two pilot classes, including one targeting Hispanic couples. A second wave of couples recently completed a series of classes and two more groups started sessions in April.
The project is for unmarried couples who are expecting a baby or have a child under three months old. Participants attend classes for 12 weeks. Meals, childcare and transportation are provided. In addition to discussing better ways to communicate, couples also talk about topics such as building trust, forgiveness, commitment and money management. In between sessions, the family care coordinator makes home visits to help reinforce what the couples are learning in the classroom.
The birth of a child can be stressful for most couples and more so for those facing financial, educational and other challenges. Statistics show that more than one-third of unmarried, low-income couples break up within the first year after their child is born. Still, Strong Couples-Strong Children recognizes that these parents generally have high hopes for their future together, Jones said.
“We want to help couples work on skills together that will help build stable and healthy relationships,” she said. “We’re not just trying to put a Band-Aid on the problem. We’re trying to help families envision and build a better future together. We know that a steady income, marriage, and education are strong factors in reducing poverty. “
Jones hopes to have several hundred unwed couples complete the program over five years. So far, feedback has been positive.
“We like the program and try to use the skills we learned when we are upset with each other,” commented one couple, ages 20 and 22.
“We love that this came along to help us through some troubling times,” said another couple, ages 31 and 25. “We are learning better ways to communicate and that we need to stick together in order to better understand each other.”
Perhaps even more encouraging—all of the couples from the pilot classes are still together.
Note: The program is currently looking for participants in the Durham area. For enrollment information, please contact Erline Harvin, project manager at the Durham County Health Department at (919) 560-7624 or by e-mail.