- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

BALTIMORE

Jerrece Caesar and Corey Roscoe may not have had a fancy wedding by bridal-magazine standards, but their marriage could set an example for couples across the country.

The couple had thought about marriage last year when she became pregnant, but “we were having serious problems, communication problems,” said Mr. Roscoe, 36.

Then they learned about a federally funded relationship-skills class aimed at helping low-income “fragile families” to stabilize and improve their relationships.

After attending several weeks of classes, Jerrece called her pastor, the Rev. Russell E. Groves, to set a wedding date.

“Yes, definitely” the classes influenced the couple to make the commitment, Mrs. Roscoe said after the ceremony at Canaan Baptist Church in Baltimore, where she was surrounded by friends and family, including the couple’s 2-week-old son.

The Roscoes are part of a seven-state experiment to determine whether relationship-skills classes can help foster stable relationships — and, preferably, marriages.

But reviving marriage in cities such as Baltimore, where 65 percent of births are out of wedlock, will be no small feat.

From 2005 through 2010, the Baltimore Building Strong Families (BSF) program will be gathering information from 650 couples to see whether it provides the right combination of words, images, services and counseling sessions to help the couples commit to each other and their children for the long haul.

The trick will be doing this in neighborhoods where trust is low, talk is cheap, sex is plentiful and weddings are rare.

Welfare’s legacy

For more than 60 years, the nation offered public assistance to single mothers — with an emphasis on the word “single.” Generations of welfare mothers warned each other about letting a man stay too long — “a man in the house” meant forfeiture of a mother’s public housing, cash benefits, Medicaid and other government benefits.

Not surprisingly, marriage all but disappeared in poor communities. Welfare mothers had boyfriends, not husbands; their children had visiting “daddies” who showed up with Pampers, not fathers who came home from work every day, played with them and protected them.

In 1996, Congress reformed the welfare system by adopting the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Single mothers who seek assistance receive help finding a job. And they receive temporary benefits, with an emphasis on the word “temporary.”

The 1996 reform also clarified the government’s interest in discouraging unwed childbearing and strengthening two-parent families. State welfare systems responded by jettisoning their “no-man-in-the-house” rules and offering welfare to poor married parents.

But that wasn’t enough to change the welfare system’s bias against two-parent families, said social conservatives. Dozens of groups, including the Heritage Foundation, Family Research Council and an umbrella group called the Fatherhood and Marriage Leadership Institute, urged Congress to allocate funds for pro-marriage and “responsible fatherhood” programs. The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 authorized $150 million a year for these activities, and funds will start flowing to communities this fall.

Still, huge questions remain about how to promote stable, monogamous relationships and married childbearing in communities with high rates of single-parenting.

Research from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, sponsored by Columbia and Princeton universities, found that when young, low-income, unwed couples have a baby, more than 80 percent are romantically involved and more than half expect to get married, said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Researchers call this “a magic moment,” he said.

However, the Fragile Families study also found that, despite these good intentions, “most of those couples eventually break up, and even those who do go on to get married have a very high divorce rate,” Mr. Horn said.

So the central question becomes: What if a carefully designed intervention was provided to couples when they’re in the “magic moment”? Mr. Horn asked.

Enter the BSF experiment, which is backed by HHS’ Administration for Children and Families.

Since early 2005, BSF sites in seven states — Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas — have been targeting hundreds of “fragile families” with relationship-skills curricula, services and follow-up interviews.

The initial findings should be out in 2009, said Alan Hershey, a BSF project director at Mathematica Policy Research.

Dishes and diapers

On a Thursday night in March, four couples gathered at the Baltimore BSF class. The hot topic was housework.

After watching a video featuring Seattle psychologist and marriage specialist Julie Gottman, author of the “Loving Couples, Loving Children” curriculum, the couples were invited to talk.

Raymond “Dino” Jefferson let loose about partner Lysa Samuels.

“She plays the enforcer,” Mr. Jefferson said, but he receives little respect.

He said he did the dishes every day for two weeks and “didn’t hear anything,” but when he didn’t do the dishes for two days in a row, “she complained.”

“I clean up a lot,” Miss Samuels retorted, adding that she also does laundry, cooks and cares for their 3-year-old and 5-month-old daughters.

Not to mention the bathroom. “I always clean the bathroom,” she said indignantly.

“Yes,” Mr. Jefferson said, suddenly agreeable. “I try to leave it for you.”

The other men in the class began laughing, and the women jeered as Miss Samuels pretended to swat her mate.

Curtis Brannon, who has four children with partner Maurina Bond, also had domestic issues.

“She’s too demanding,” he said. “To her, everything’s got to be done right now.” But it’s too much, he said. “I’m not no child.”

“How can we have company when the house is a mess?” Miss Bond asked. “The dishes are just sitting there.”

Latisha Crawford said her partner, Darrick Cruse, has a lot to learn about caring for an infant.

“The diapers are never on right — they’re too tight or too loose,” she said.

Mr. Cruse shrugged his shoulders over the diapering, but noted that when he comes home from work, he could use some downtime.

“I’m tired, leave me alone for a half hour. But it’s always ‘Take the baby,’” he said.

“Work multiplies when the child arrives,” said BSF co-facilitator Michael Franklin, who empathized with the couples, but steered them toward resolving their differences.

Successful couples divide tasks and foster a sense of fairness and balance in the home, said Mr. Franklin, a married father, teacher and pastor.

Turning to the men, he said that if they helped more around the house, they would increase their odds for romance. This time, the men jeered while the women cheered.

“Yes, it’s a turn-on,” one mother said, nodding her head vigorously.

One father shook his head in disbelief.

“What if I clean up, and she’s still angry?” he muttered.

Mia Rhodes, the other BSF facilitator, jumped in.

“Remember, couples have to turn toward each other, not away from each other,” said Mrs. Rhodes, an experienced social worker. “Appreciate each other. Help each other understand what’s expected, what needs to be done.”

The Baltimore BSF’s six months of classes cover dozens of real-life issues: Earning money and spending money. Grandmas and child care. Mommas and momma’s boys. Homeboys and hood rats. Cell phones and who’s calling on them.

“Why is your phone locked?” a pregnant Laneisha Drafts asked her husband, Duane, during a Monday-night class. His unsatisfactory answers fueled her anger, and he eventually walked out of class. Days later, she moved out of their home.

‘Just a piece of paper’

The recruitment of couples for BSF is a critical first step.

Since August, Baltimore field coordinators Stephen Lawrence and Maxine Galloway have regularly visited hospital maternity wards, doctors’ offices, public housing, laundries and grocery stores looking for eligible couples. “Eligible” means they are 18 or older, pregnant or newly delivered, unwed or newly married, romantically involved, nonviolent and willing to participate in the program, which includes free child care, dinner and transportation.

So far, Mr. Lawrence and Miss Galloway have signed up 200 couples, half of whom were randomly assigned to the BSF program and half to a control group that receives regular city services.

Miss Galloway said the “very best situation” is when the father is with the mother when she approaches the couple so they can both hear about the program before signing up.

She and Mr. Lawrence often see anti-marriage bias.

“They see it as unattainable,” Miss Galloway said.

Mr. Lawrence said he is careful to describe BSF as “a family-strengthening program,” not a let’s-get-you-married program, but some women hear it that way anyway.

“Marriage is just a piece of paper,” one young mother whispered to another after the women rebuffed Mr. Lawrence in the waiting room at a hospital family care center.

On April 28, the Baltimore BSF held its first graduation ceremony for couples who had finished the first six months of classes.

“You are on the cutting edge of a new phenomenon of how families are served,” said Joseph T. Jones Jr., founder and president of the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development program, which oversees the Baltimore BSF.

“It’s really about the little people,” Mr. Jones said, referring to the dozens of babies and children who gathered in the meeting room at New Shiloh Baptist Church. “Little people need to see their moms and dads working together.”

Several mothers came without their partners because of work schedules, but Charice Diggs, 21, came alone because she and her boyfriend are “not together anymore.”

“I don’t know why we’re not together,” Miss Diggs said later, rubbing her eight-months pregnant belly. But she had no regrets about taking the BSF course. “It was most definitely worth it, and it does work for others,” she said.

One couple — Sophia Watts, 21, and Darryl Duppins, 24 — were honored with a gift certificate and a night in a fancy Baltimore hotel for attending nearly all of their classes. Later, they testified to the value of the BSF program.

One of the best lessons is to “turn toward each other, not away from each other,” Miss Watts said.

“It helped us stay together,” said Mr. Duppins, cuddling his 6-month-old son, Darryl Jr., while daughter, Akaya, 4, danced nearby.

“It’s a struggle, but we make it,” he said, adding that “one day” he expects they will “walk down the aisle.”

Sadly, their dream will remain just that. On June 11, Mr. Duppins was shot on a street near his mother’s home and died shortly thereafter.

The entire BSF team and other BSF families surrounded the grief-stricken family and continue to be a safety net for Miss Watts.

“We are building strong families,” said Cassandra Codes-Johnson, BSF program director. “We won’t forget you, and we will not let you forget us.”

As for the other couples: Mr. Jefferson and Miss Samuels are still struggling in their relationship. Miss Diggs remains on speaking terms with her ex-boyfriend. The Draftses weathered some bad days and have now reconciled. Miss Crawford and Mr. Cruse have set a wedding date. Mr. Brannon and Miss Bond are doing well juggling child care and Miss Bond’s new job.

But when asked about the future, Mr. Brannon shook his head and grinned.

“Marriage?” he said. “I’m not ready for it, but I know it’s coming.”

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