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Project successful at helping fragile families stay together

A five-year project designed to strengthen the relationships of unmarried, economically-disadvantaged new parents has found a suggested link between couples’ participation in relationship skills coaching and an associated improvement in their communication, conflict resolution skills and relationship satisfaction.

These are the preliminary findings from the UNC School of Social Work’s Strong Couples-Strong Children intervention program. From 2006 to September of 2011, the Durham County-based program worked with 256 unmarried couples who were expecting a child or who had a child under three-months old. The $2.5 million federally-funded initiative involved partnerships with Durham County’s Public Health Department, Cooperative Extension Services and many other Durham community and faith-based organizations.

Anne Jones, a School of Social Work clinical associate professor, directed the project, which focused on teaching communication and conflict management skills to help couples develop healthier couple and co-parenting relationships. The program also provided vulnerable families in-home support services and guided them to other community resources including job training programs, affordable housing services, and community college and other educational options.

“While not all of our outcome variables are significant, key outcomes, such as relationship satisfaction, relationship quality, communication, conflict resolution, and use of community resources all appear to have been positively and significantly impacted,” said Jones who worked closely with research professor Pajarita Charles, Ph.D. ’09, and doctoral student Keesha Dunbar Benson, MSW ’07, on the project.

“We also have a great deal of qualitative data from program participants in which they reported how much they gained from the program and how it changed their lives. Many of the couples talked about how they’ve become not only better partners but also parents.”

Participating families also taught researchers about the challenges that often strain relationships, such as finances, employment issues, and affordable housing, Jones said.

“In addition, personal issues such as mental health and substance abuse also serve as barriers, especially when resources are limited.”

At least 80 percent of the participating couples attended four of the program’s 12-week group sessions; a caseworker offered additional support for families at home. Ten participating couples chose to marry, though the initiative’s intent wasn’t to push marriage, Jones added. Rather, the goal was to strengthen the overall family, giving children a greater chance at success.

“The problem is that a large percentage of unmarried parents or couples break up within a short time of having their baby,” Jones explained. “Among fragile families in large cities, approximately 40 percent break up within one year of the birth of their child and more couples’ relationships continue to dissolve over time.”

Studies have shown that children from single-parent households are more likely to grow up in poverty and are at greater risk for problems affecting their health and behavior, cognitive development, and academic success, Jones said. An estimated 78 percent of the program’s participants reported an annual income of less than $10,000.

“So these were people, couples, and families that were already facing extreme poverty,” Jones said.

A few participants noted that the communication and problem-solving skills they learned helped them to become more effective workers on the job, while others praised the program for teaching them how to manage a budget and save for their futures.

“There are so many of these kinds of soft skills that we just take for granted,” Jones said.

Perhaps, more important, Strong Couples-Strong Children helped “challenge some of the stereotypes” of low-income fathers, she added. “I think people had a lot of reservations about whether men would participate in the sessions. We found that they are invested in their relationships and that they made considerable effort to be there. One father who could not physically attend a Saturday session actually phoned in from an elevator shaft where he was working and listened to the session for hours!”

Because of the success of Strong Couples-Strong Children, agencies, including the Durham County Public Health Department, are beginning to focus more on serving the needs of fathers and families, not just mothers and children, Jones said. Several churches in Durham are also now using the program’s curriculum to better serve unmarried couples within their congregations.

“The fact that churches now are identifying these couples and their children as families that need to be served is great,” Jones said.

Although there are no plans to follow up with the couples down the road, Jones said she most likely will pursue additional funding so that she can develop more broadly-focused intervention programs that continue to serve economically-challenged families.