Auburn’s College of Human Sciences receives $10 million grant to study Alabama Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Initiative

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Auburn University's Center for Children, Youth and Families has been awarded a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Family Assistance to study the efficacy of the Alabama Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education Initiative.

The award is the largest grant awarded to a program in Auburn's College of Human Sciences.

"This award provides a strong validation for the transformational contributions the initiative has made to building and sustaining healthy relationships and stable marriages in Alabama for the past 13 years," said June Henton, dean of the College of Human Sciences.

Since its inception in 2002, Francesca Adler-Baeder, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences and principal investigator for the initiative, has received $31.6 million in competitive grants to implement the program throughout the state. More than 55,000 citizens have completed a class series and hundreds of thousands have utilized educational resources either through the project website or two initiative-produced handbooks distributed throughout the state.

The initiative has had much success in reaching historically underserved populations in the state, particularly minority families and low-income families, as well as a broad segment of couples, including premarital, cohabitating, same sex and remarried.

The initiative began as a collaborative effort between several individuals and agencies at Auburn and around the state as a response to Alabama's persistent history of marital and family instability. The work has grown from state-funded pilot projects to the current large-scale, coordinated, comprehensive community-centered effort that includes the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Alabama Network of Family Resource Centers, and is one of the largest and longest running in the country.

Other faculty members involved include Christine Totura, assistant professor in Auburn's Department of Psychology and co-principal investigator, and Tom Smith and Scott Ketring, associate professors in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and co-project directors and co-investigators. Roberta Jackel is the project manager.

The project provides direct employment opportunities for over 40 individuals, including a central staff at Auburn, a team of graduate students and both full- and part-time staff at 10 implementation sites. Another 20-30 undergraduate students work with the project each year, delivering programs and processing evaluation data.

The new funding will allow for the next phase of the initiative, which includes an efficacy study of the program's effectiveness for a diverse population of participants. Through an intake process, adult participants will have the opportunity to participate in comprehensive services and programs that will include education on relationship skills, mindfulness-based strategies for managing toxic stress, emotion regulation, parenting, conflict resolution, financial management and employment skills.

Over the next five years, Adler-Baeder expects to serve another 13,500 citizens. Free research-based couple and relationship education classes will be offered in Lee County and 10 other implementation sites around the state for youth in high schools and a broad spectrum of adults who attend as couples or individuals. Compensation will be provided for participating in the study of the programs.

Researchers will implement a uniform performance measurement survey developed by the federal government, as well as a randomized control study of the relative impact of two healthy marriage curricula developed at Auburn. Results of an evaluation designed to explore various outcomes, as well as influences on program outcomes, will serve to inform practitioners and policy makers.

"We are so grateful to be entrusted with this opportunity to continue to expand the healthy marriage and relationship initiative and learn even more about the best ways to use educational resources to strengthen relationships within families and support couple and family stability in Alabama," said Adler-Baeder. "The benefits we have documented and the positive trends we are seeing are owing to the dedicated staff and students and colleagues – and to the participating youth and families themselves – for their commitment, dedication, passion and hard work."

Evaluation research has shown evidence of benefits for youth participants in their sense of well-being, interpersonal competence, knowledge of characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, as well as relationships with their peers and parents. Adult participants reported benefits to their individual sense of health and well-being, co-parenting relationships, couple relationships, parenting and their children's social competence. In addition, evidence from the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates the initiative is making a difference in the state. The report shows that Alabama has reported a dramatic drop in the divorce rate.

"While initial results of the initiative are encouraging, the needs in Alabama are widespread. Our citizens continue to face considerable challenges related to high rates of relationship and family instability and to economic strain," said Adler-Baeder. "Family relationships, stress management, health and economic self-sufficiency and stability are all inextricably linked. Our goal is to empower citizens in each of these areas, better ensuring optimal outcomes for them, their families and communities."

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