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Alabama Initiative Promotes Marriage

Feb 14, 2008

Alabama initiative promotes marriage

Grant aims to raise awareness of healthy family's importance

By Sarah Bruyn Jones

Staff Writer

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Saint Valentine is the patron saint of love, young people and marriage.

While Valentine's Day has largely become a secular celebration of love, the third-century martyr for whom the day is named does represent something both religion and government are trying to promote: marriage.

The government's focus on healthy marriages started more than a decade ago, when Congress decided to investigate the importance of marriage on society, but it's an area that is still breaking new ground. Educating couples on the skills to maintain strong marriages and relationships is one new area, and an Alabama initiative is leading the way

'For whatever reason, there has been no specific support for relationship education through the government before,' said Francesca Adler-Baeder, associate professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Auburn University. 'So it's pretty exciting that there is this emphasis on building the key relationship in families that the government is supporting. Our emphasis is really on education. I think we can do so much if we give people skills up front.'

Adler-Baeder is the principal investigator for a government-funded grant that aims to strengthen families by raising awareness of the importance of healthy marriages. The grant also covers relationship education programs for youth, unmarried parents, stepparents, unmarried couples and traditional married couples.

Researchers ultimately reported to Congress that marriage is the foundation for a successful society, as well as being an essential institution for the well-being of children. Those findings led to the establishment of the Healthy Marriage Initiative in 2005. Ultimately, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 provided $150 million a year for research and demonstration projects that test promising approaches for encouraging healthy marriages.

Focus on education

In 2006, Auburn University's College of Human Sciences received a $8.2-million, five-year grant to support the work of the Alabama Community Healthy Marriage Initiative, the state version of the federal initiative. Adler-Baeder is the lead investigator. It was the second largest grant given by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Family Assistance, which heads the federal initiative.

The programs established are called preventative because they are designed to prevent unhealthy marriages and unhappy families. The assumption is that children raised by parents in healthy relationships, compared with parents in unhappy ones, are more likely to attend college, be physically and emotionally healthier, less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and less likely to be raised in poverty.

Tuscaloosa's One Place is one of eight family resource centers where the grant money is being put to use. Courses are held at schools and churches to help area families succeed.

'If you work on the marital relationship versus working on parenting skills, you see more of an effect on the children,' said Stephanie Brewer, program coordinator at Tuscaloosa's One Place.

Amy and Phillip McCool were married in September. Each had two girls from a previous marriage. The McCools participated in one of the Tuscaloosa's One Place courses, Smart Steps for Step families, at First United Methodist Church to help handle the changes of becoming a blended family.

'We had been looking for any type of advice or help that we could get because we know the divorce rate is high in second marriages,' Amy McCool said.

What surprised her was just how important it was for the children's well-being that their marriage be strong.

'I guess the main thing I walked away with was to make our relationship the most important thing in the family, being the husband and wife,' she said. 'The kids' feelings are definitely important, but the husband and wife relationship has to be the most important. ... I didn't realize how important it was. I always thought my children were here first, they didn't ask for all this mess, and that they should be my first priority. But that's not the case.'

In fact, Adler-Baeder said, the reason is simple. Parents already have a long history with their children, but a new couple is still discovering things about each other.

Church connection

The McCools worship at Valley View Baptist Church, and since gaining some skills from the marriage class (which was secular), Amy McCool said she has found ways to combine the lessons with her faith. She has also helped to establish a blended-families group for women at her church. If interest is high, she said, she wants to establish a Sunday school or Bible study for couples in blended families.

'I can't stress how important it is in the church, because so many families these days are not traditional, they are blended, and if the church doesn't reach out to those people, they aren't reaching out to the majority of people in the church,' she said.

Adler-Baeder said she wants to see such connections at the community level and among different organizations, including faith-based ones. Part of the reason to reach out to the faith community is not just that they share the same interest in encouraging strong marriages, but they provide access to people seeking relationship skills.

'We want people to understand it is about education, that it doesn't mean there is anything wrong with your marriage and that taking these steps initially can help tremendously, so that you don't have to go to a counselor down the road,' she said. 'It's about access.'

Tuscaloosa's One Place has also joined with the local faith community on marriage initiatives outside the project.

'Love that Overcomes' at University Church of Christ on Feb. 26 is intended to highlight healthy marriages and families. Tuscaloosa's One Place is helping organize and promote the event. Mac Ogren, director of development at the Christian-based JH Ranch, is the keynote speaker.

'We really wanted to honor local couples who have strong marriages and have even made it through hardships,' Brewer said. 'We think the church community is a fantastic avenue to get this information out there because the mission of the church and our program are very similar. It's just a natural fit.'