Scott Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver, co-Chair of Research Advisory Group for the Family Expectations Program, and co-developer of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) which forms part of the basis of the Becoming Parents Program that is one component of the services provided in Family Expectations.
Something incredible is happening in Oklahoma! It’s the innovative Family Expectations (FE) program in Oklahoma City. A large, rigorous federal study has now demonstrated that services to strengthen families successfully improved the stability and quality of unmarried parents’ relationships around the time of the birth of a child. Run by Public Strategies —and funded by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the Administration for Children and Families —Family Expectations stands to make a major difference in the lives of children who gain an increased chance of being raised in a healthy, stable home.
Why does this matter? While many children raised by single parents or step-parents thrive, decades of research show consistent advantages for children raised by both of their parents within a low-conflict household. Based on much of this research, Family Expectations engages financially vulnerable couples, both unmarried and married, in a wide range of services, including educational classes where they learn skills and principles to nurture and protect their relationship and parenting information about infant care and development. They also work one-on-one with family support coordinators who help these new parents to apply what they learn and to access other community services.
Family Expectations is actually part of two large, multi-site, federally funded studies commissioned by the Administration for Children and Families. The Building Strong Families (BSF) study, led by Mathematica Policy Research, is examining the impacts of such programs on low income, unmarried couples, while another study is examining the impacts on low income, married couples. In each study, half of the couples were randomly assigned to receive services similar to Family Expectations (intervention group) and half received only the services they might otherwise find in the community (control group).
The federal government recently released the results on outcomes at 15 months for the BSF study. While the national results across sites were disappointing, the findings were so different in Oklahoma that the evaluators drew special attention to the results for Family Expectations (report available here). To start with, compared to most other sites, Family Expectations was able to get more couples through a much greater portion of the intended services. Likely due in part to the newness of this program model, in some other sites, as few as 40 percent of the intervention group couples ever attended a single educational class together. While many other sites struggled to get and keep couples involved, FE excelled at doing so. And when it came to making a difference in the lives of couples, those randomly assigned to FE showed a consistent pattern of positive outcomes, including a greater likelihood of remaining together and positive benefits for relationship happiness, emotional support, sexual fidelity, the ability to handle conflict effectively, co-parenting, and father involvement —including a greater proportion of fathers both living with their children and contributing to the cost of providing for their children. Also of note, the positive impacts were strongest among participating African American couples.
In this type of policy research, it is difficult to demonstrate impacts in community-based, real-world settings. That makes these findings from Oklahoma’s Family Expectations particularly noteworthy. Better still, I believe that the kind of results Oklahoma demonstrated can be achieved elsewhere. I come to this opinion based on my 25 years of research in this area as well as discussions with the evaluators and with the program’s nationally respected research advisory group. Throughout, FE used procedures that are detailed, methodical, and inventive. That means the procedures could be adopted and used elsewhere. Family Expectations created a warm environment for the couples that is infused with a commitment to “customer service,” backed by active and strong management, all while relying on existing research that highlights proven strategies for success.
Those interested in improving the lives of the nation’s most vulnerable, young families, can find great encouragement from the impressive set of findings in Oklahoma, especially since success was demonstrated with families that have many other disadvantages working against them as they strive to reach their aspirations in family life. And the citizens of Oklahoma can be proud that their state is leading the nation, once again, as it helps others see they can truly make a difference in the lives of low-income children.
For a related discussion, see this OK Policy Roundtable: Should the state of Oklahoma be promoting marriage?
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