University of South Florida St. Petersburg Campus



Family Study Center receives $3.7 million federal grant to support vulnerable families

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The grant will be used to promote stronger relationships between parents and improve the home lives of struggling families and vulnerable children in Pinellas County.

A collaborative team led by psychology professor James McHale, director of the Family Study Center on the USF St. Petersburg campus, has been awarded a $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to research and strengthen relationships between family members to create safe and supportive households.

For the five-year grant, the research team will work with over 500 parents in Pinellas County who are voluntarily taking part in diversion services following an investigation for child abuse and neglect using a relationship skills program called Within My Reach (WMR). Diversion services help parents prevent their children’s removal from the family and placement in foster care.

The WMR program will help individuals protect and stabilize their current relationships, choose partners wisely to build committed relationships or, in cases of unsafe relationships, identify danger and receive the support necessary to leave safely. If the grant-sponsored efforts succeed, the skills parents learn in WMR will promote stronger relationships between adults, increasing the likelihood children will grow up in more stable and secure households.

“WMR’s critical focus on adult relationships will be amplified in this new study by a Focused Coparenting Consultation that helps parents communicate, problem-solve, and resolve conflicts they have been having about their children,” said McHale. “Our hope is that these additions to the important diversion program services that families are already receiving from Lutheran Services Florida and Family Enrichment Services will improve the home lives of struggling families and vulnerable children in Pinellas County.”

Parents who take part in the initiative will be surveyed about personal, child and family adjustments before and after the WMR group intervention. A peer mentor will assist parents in connecting to the WMR program and family, economic and other community-based resources. Support will be provided throughout to ensure family safety during this challenging time, and parents will meet with staff to connect with tailored employment services available in the community.

After completing the WMR program, parents wishing additional support can enroll in a family-specific intervention called Focused Coparenting Consultation (FCC). The FCC intervention, a novel workshop series that helps promote better teamwork between adults to create a safer and more secure home environment for children, has been the focus of an ongoing randomized controlled trial at the Family Study Center since 2015.

Strong community collaboration is a vital feature of this new program to reduce gaps in family intervention services.

“The hope is that partnering agencies can serve parents individually and as couples through this prevention program to keep children together with their family and not require further intervention in the future,” said Ebony Miller of the Family Study Center, who will serve as Project Manager for the initiative. “We are all interested to learn whether these enhanced diversion services will offer an additional boost to families.”

To help answer this question, a local evaluation will be completed by the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County and include a six-month follow-up with families to learn whether there is low recidivism, low child removal and better family functioning. Successful results could lead to expansion of the services available to families receiving diversion support in Pinellas.

Another important aspect of the new program will be cross-cultural engagement. According to data from the Florida Dependency Court Information System, 31 percent of all Pinellas children placed out-of-home were African American, even though African Americans account for only 10 percent of the county’s population.

“Black children are overrepresented in the child welfare system and under-represented in successfully exiting it,” said Russia Collins of Collins Consulting LMHC. “Black and brown families often experience additional barriers once they enter the front door of any system of care. Preventing entry is so important to close this gap affecting children and families of color.”

The new initiative is a collaboration between the Family Study Center, Lutheran Services Florida, Family Enrichment Services, People Empowering and Restoring Communities (PERC), Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA), Eckerd Community Alternatives and the Pinellas County Juvenile Welfare Board. The team is one of only 31 nationwide to receive a Family, Relationship, and Marriage Education Works grant from HHS’ Administration for Children and Families Office of Family Assistance.

The team is about halfway through a six-month planning phase as the initial WMR group meetings will be held virtually rather than in-person. The program will begin serving families in-person once it is safe to do so later in 2021.

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