-Leadership from several St. Petersburg community organizations and the University of South Florida came together to study the enduring positive impacts of coparenting interventions in unmarried African American families.
After a decade of planning, recruitment and volunteer work, the preeminent Infant Mental Health Journal published the results in its December 2022 issue. The report details how a meticulously curated program called “Figuring it Out for the Child (FIOC)” led to more emotionally and physically healthy babies and improved relationship dynamics in unwed parents.
USF St. Petersburg’s Family Study Center (FSC) led the initiative – but it was only made possible through ongoing partnerships with several local organizations, such as the Next STEPP Pregnancy Center.
“There are many families in our city now with infants and small children who have benefitted from our having successfully completed the work,” said James McHale, director of the FSC.
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of prenatal interventions among married families. However, the local research broke new ground by demonstrating how unwed parents – who often did not live together – and their babies can receive the same long-term positive impacts.
The FIOC program involved 138 pairs of unmarried fathers and mothers expecting their first child together. Officials offered all parents resources and referrals to preexisting local services for expectant and new parents.
In addition, the study’s leaders randomly chose 68 sets to participate in a six-session prenatal FIOC intervention. While some were reluctant, Carole Alexander, CEO of Next STEPP, noted that the thought of benefitting parents in similar situations throughout the country was a motivating factor.
“We’re able to share with the families that yes, you made a difference,” added Alexander. “Because you were involved, other families are now going to have the benefits that you had.”
Due to an extensive planning process and community buy-in, the benefits were significant and enduring.
Fathers and mothers met weekly with a local African-American male and female mentor pair who better understood the target demographic’s lived experiences. Civic, faith and community leaders helped customize the curriculum to reflect the realities of residents in the neighborhoods they serve.
Collaborators from Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and Human Services, the Federal Healthy Start Project at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and the Pinellas County Health Department’s maternal and child home visiting programs joined Next STEPP and several other local organizations to help administer the program.
“It made it easier for them to say, ‘these are folks I trust, and if they say this is going to be good for me and good for the community, then yes, I’m going to go ahead and participate,’” said Alexander.
Parents discussed their hopes, aspirations and anticipated challenges regarding raising their baby during the FIO intervention sessions. Mentors helped them build communication and problem-solving skills and establish shared goals for their children.
Both sets of parents returned three months after childbirth to answer the same questions presented before they received services or guidance. Officials also asked new questions regarding their respective adjustments following the baby’s birth.
That process continued after a year, and parents also completed an Infant-Toddler Social Emotional Assessment to describe the child’s development. Those that participated in the FIOC intervention reported increased communication and respect levels at both intervals. They also relayed significant decreases in psychological aggression – like shouting matches – in their relationships.
“We even had some couples that decided to get married because now they could communicate!” added Alexander, visibly joyed.
That reduced stress on the baby also led to substantial benefits. Parents from the intervention group reported their children were easier to soothe, more patient and less irritable. Mothers noted their babies were less aggressive, with fewer physical outbursts.
McHale explained program officials brought the study to the National Institute of Health (NIH) nearly a decade ago. However, he recalled one reviewer saying, “‘this is never going to work. Nobody’s going to come to this.'”
The Brady Education Foundation then funded a feasibility study, which provided pilot data that proved the initiative was possible. After showing how “Figuring It Out for the Child” benefitted 20 local families, the NIH decided to support a much larger randomized trial.
McHale relayed how officials from national organizations reached out for study updates before its completion. While he had to wait to share the findings, he believes “this is going to be of tremendous interest to communities around the United States.”
If leadership in other areas takes the same collaborative approach, “rather than superimposing a set of ideas onto the community,” he believes the FIOC program can serve as a model. After realizing the initiative’s success, Alexander hopes it becomes a cultural norm in St. Petersburg.
“Many of us are looking forward to families being able to go wherever in the community they are and still be able to have this type of support and service,” she said.