For many low income couples with a new baby – or one on the way – the struggle of day-to-day life not only strains relationships but threatens bonds and undermines the nurturing of children.
Backed by $5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Georgia State University’s Building Strong Families intervention program has, for the past three years, successfully helped young families by teaching them survival skills through interactive group counseling sessions. In the program, couples learn parenting, communication and relationship skills.
Operated out of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies’ Georgia Health Policy Center, Georgia State’s program is one of seven sites nationwide to offer the assistance, with a hope of affecting outcomes and helping couples stay together.
“Couples tell us that they would not have made it if it weren’t for us,” said Akilah Thomas, project director with the Georgia Building Strong Families program. “We’ve had couples come to us on the verge of breaking up. We’ve even had couples want to come back because the program offers an outlet where they can get answers.”
The goal is to recruit couples at the “magic moment” or during the time of birth of a child when couples are most likely to be motivated and open to making positive changes in their lives, Thomas said.
Nearly one-third of the children in the state are born out of wedlock. Women, mostly African-Americans, below the age of 25 account for the majority of unmarried births.
Research strongly indicates that children of married parents do much better on a wide range of outcomes than children growing up in other household types. Research also indicates that at the time of birth of their child, 82 percent of unmarried, low-income parents are romantically involved and hopeful and desirous of marrying each other, however a year later, only 10 percent has married and by three years, most have broken up.
The program has helped couples including Sheena and Reginald King. Like most couples, they fight about money and chores around the house, among other things. When they found out they were having a baby boy, those problems only magnified. The Kings, both 26, also have three other children from other relationships.
“I ran out of the clinic when they told me I was pregnant,” Sheena King said. “But I love kids. I don’t believe in abortion. I was worried and my husband did not understand me. I kept thinking, ‘what will I do now?'”
Building Strong Families invited the couple to participate while at a pre-natal appointment at Grady Hospital. And for them, so far it’s working.
To gauge the program’s effectiveness, the program has been set up as a randomized study. All couples are interviewed upon enrollment; then Mathematica Policy Research surveys each couple at different intervals during the 22-session program.
More than 1,200 couples have enrolled in the Georgia State University program to date.
“The couples care about one another and want to be together but they don’t have the tools to do it,” Thomas said.
King said she and her husband look forward to the program each week.
“I now have a positive outlook,” King said. “We have come together as a family. So many families don’t talk about things or try to understand what’s wrong. I have been through a lot and to now be in a relationship that’s different is amazing. The program shows you different ways to deal with problems and communicate with your partner.”
But like most relationships, there are couples who don’t make it – and the program only helps those eager to stay together.