Parenting program tackles child abuse and neglect among formerly homeless families

SMU partners with Family Compass to roll out one-on-one parenting intervention to improve the lives of abused and neglected children

A parenting program developed by researchers in SMU’s Department of Psychology will now help Dallas-area families who were once homeless.

Family Compass, one of the oldest child abuse prevention agencies in Dallas, is expanding its use of “Project Support.” The Project Support program was developed by SMU psychologists Renee McDonald and Ernest Jouriles to reduce child abuse and neglect in severely violent families.

“Families who have been homeless are emerging from a very stressful situation,” McDonald said. “At a time when parents are trying to get back on their feet, Project Support provides structure and training that guide them in parenting their children in ways that are loving and effective. This helps children do better in school, feel happier and behave better at home.”

Family Compass will use Project Support in its new partnership with the Housing Crisis Center in Dallas. Starting this year, Family Compass will provide assistance to families in permanent and transitional supportive housing, said Jessica Trudeau, executive director of Family Compass.

An $18,000 grant to SMU from Verizon Foundation will fund Project Support for families referred to Family Compass either by Texas Child Protective Services or the Housing Crisis Center.

“The prevalence of families who are homeless in Dallas continues to escalate,” Trudeau said. “We are working with these families because the scientific literature indicates that housing instability places children at risk for abuse. At Family Compass, we seek to serve those at highest risk in our community. We believe that every child deserves protection and a hopeful future.”

The grant also will fund an in-depth evaluation of Project Support’s impact on Family Compass families to determine whether the program’s effects are maintained over time.

Families that consent to participate will be randomly assigned to one of two groups — one that will receive Project Support help, or a control group that will receive existing services through Texas Child Protective Services or the Housing Crisis Center, McDonald said. Each family will be assessed at the start of the program, after six months of services, and six months after they complete the program’s services.

The SMU Psychology Department will provide doctoral students to enroll families and conduct assessments, McDonald said.

McDonald is an associate professor in the SMU Department of Psychology and Associate Dean for Research in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences at SMU. Jouriles is a professor and chairman of the SMU Psychology Department.

Project Support provides families with parenting help, emotional support
Project Support was launched in 1996 to address the mental health problems of maltreated children and children exposed to domestic violence, both of which often lead to considerable problems for children later in life, such as substance abuse, interpersonal violence and criminal activity.

As part of Project Support, mental health professionals meet with families weekly in their homes for up to 6 months. During that time, caregivers are taught specific skills, including how to pay attention and play with their children, how to listen and comfort them, how to offer praise and positive attention, how to give appropriate instructions and commands, and how to respond to misbehavior.

Therapists also provide mothers with emotional support and help them access needed materials and resources through community agencies, such as food banks and Medicaid. The therapists help mothers evaluate the adequacy and safety of the family’s living arrangements, the quality of their child-care arrangements and how to provide sufficient food with little money.

Since its launch, Project Support has been adopted by agencies nationally and internationally as a treatment for children in violent families that is supported by research evidence.

Research found the program reduced abusive parenting among mothers who live in poverty and whose families have a history of domestic violence or child abuse. Mothers reduced their use of harsh discipline and physical aggression toward their children and were much less likely to be referred to Texas Child Protective Services for child abuse. Project Support also improved children’s psychological adjustment, especially conduct problems, the researchers found.

Project Support decreased reports of abuse, improved family functioning
“Family Compass approached us two years ago about adopting an intervention supported by clinical research,” said McDonald. “We started training their clinical workers. So this is a program that was incubated at SMU and is now being deployed in the community.”

Family Compass first implemented Project Support in 2011 with clients in its existing Parent Aide program. Parent Aide, a free home-visitation program, coaches parents in nonviolent discipline methods for up to two years, Trudeau said.

Founded in 1992, Family Compass has served more than 38,450 children and parents in its mission to guide families away from violence toward a healthy family.

The nonprofit organization’s clients include families referred to Texas Child Protective Services, Dallas Independent School District, Parkland Health and Hospital System, Baylor Hospital and other local agencies.

“So far, Project Support’s impact on families includes improved nonviolent parenting practices, decreased reports of abuse to Child Protective Services, and healthier children in families with improved functioning,” Trudeau said.

Every year U.S. child welfare agencies receive more than 3 million reports of child abuse and neglect involving nearly 6 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Each day in the United States five children die from injuries related to abuse. — Margaret Allen

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About Margaret Allen

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