Studying Families, and Helping Them

Monday, February 22, 2016

Researcher examines families, creates parenting skills programs

By Delia O’Hara

A lot of people are concerned about the condition of families today. Wrenetha Julion, PhD, has turned her concern into action.

What’s become her life’s work began during Julion’s eight years as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Cook County Hospital in Chicago (now John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County). There, she watched black families struggle with preterm labor; tiny, vulnerable babies; and a great deal of stress.

Not every family that came to Cook County Hospital to have a baby wound up in the NICU, of course, and not every family there was in similar circumstances. Still, Julion — who herself was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago — wondered about those families that shared some of the same heart-wrenching problems.

“There was something missing from what we were able to address,” she recalls. “I wanted to know what was going on outside the hospital, and how that was affecting what happened when the families got there.”

Her concerns sent Julion back to school, first for joint master’s degrees in public health and nursing, and then for a PhD from the Rush University College of Nursing. Now, more than two decades later, she is an educator and researcher at Rush University Medical Center, a pioneer in the study of the dynamics of black families, and a developer of a number of programs aimed at promoting the use of effective parenting skills, especially for low-income families living in urban communities.

More than ‘deadbeat dads’

Julion has been particularly concerned about black fathers who do not live with their children. Only 31 percent of black children are growing up today in households with two married parents, compared with 72 percent of white children and 55 percent of Hispanics. What’s more, 54 percent of black children live with a single parent, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. Single-parent families are much more likely to live in poverty, the report states. Research has also shown that children whose fathers are involved in their lives are more confident, more emotionally secure, do a better job of forming and maintaining relationships, stay in school longer and do better there.

Black fathers who live apart from their children historically have drawn scalding criticism. They have been “stereotyped, dismissed, devalued and disregarded … as uninterested, unengaged, ‘deadbeat’ dads,” Julion says.

She thought there was more to their story. “I wanted to be part of the research to affect this community. I felt like part of what was missing was that a lot of the research at the time was not conducted by people of color, which is not to say those researchers were not well intentioned,” she says.

Julion decided to ask the fathers themselves why they weren’t living with their families and how they felt about that. What she learned was that “these men loved their children, wanted to be in their lives, and faced any number of constraints that get in the way of that.”

Some of those constraints included financial difficulties that made it difficult for them to meet their child-support payments, conflicted relationships with the child’s mother or other family members (sometimes because of those lagging or missing payments), lack of involvement with their own fathers, relationships with women who opposed their involvement with children from a previous union or involvement in the criminal justice system.

Giving parents options

Julion came to Rush with Deborah Gross DNSc, then a Rush faculty member, now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, a researcher and “amazing mentor,” in Julion’s words. Gross brought Julion on as a research assistant in a project to implement parent training in low-income Chicago day care centers.  She subsequently worked as project director and co-investigator in Gross’ research. Together with Christine Garvey, PhD, RN, a Rush nurse and faculty member, now retired, in 2002 they developed the Chicago Parent Program, a nationally recognized parenting-skills training program now in use at Rush and elsewhere.

With the Chicago Parent Program, participating parents in a group setting — a day care center, for example — watch video scenes that depict various parenting scenarios in everyday places such as a home, a laundromat or a park. Some of the strategies shown are optimal, but others are the common, flawed responses of harried parents. At the end of each scene, trained group leaders asks parents to discuss what they think of the parents’ interactions with their children.

“The families we worked with could connect with what they were seeing,” Julion says. At the same time, viewing a video allowed parents to maintain some distance from their own situations.

“We don’t say there’s one right way to do it. We say, ‘You know your child better than any other person in the world. You know what will work and what won’t.’ We give them some options, some opportunities for doing things differently, and a chance to practice these new skills,” Julion says.

‘Children need to have their dads involved’          

Now a professor of Women, Children and Family Nursing in the Rush University College of Nursing, Julion and colleagues in the college have developed a program specifically for black fathers, Building Bridges to Fatherhood, which also employs videos to teach parenting skills.

Begun in 2009 with funding from the NIH, Building Bridges to Fatherhood tapped a “fathers’ advisory council” of black fathers to guide the development of the intervention, which may help them and men like them participate effectively in their children’s lives. The men make suggestions about the videos as well — one was to have some actual fathers talk about real-life situations, such as how to negotiate visiting time with their children.     

“I don’t develop fatherhood programs based on what mothers think fathers should do. I go to the fathers themselves,” Julion says. Those fathers may “need support in persisting or enduring through some tough situations, so that their children get the benefit of their positive and life-long involvement.”

The team is in the second year of a four-year grant from the NIH to test the effectiveness of Building Bridges to Fatherhood.

“It’s really intentional for me that I connect with the community,” Julion says. “Children deserve the best. In order to have the best, they need to have their dads involved.”