June 28, 2013

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

Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald

Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald

Family Compass, one of the oldest child abuse prevention agencies in Dallas, is expanding its use of “Project Support,” developed by Associate Professor Renee McDonald and Professor and Chair Ernest Jouriles to reduce child abuse and neglect.

Since its launch in 1996, Project Support has been adopted by social services agencies nationally and internationally. SMU research found that the program reduces abusive parenting among mothers who live in poverty and whose families have a history of domestic violence or child abuse.

“Families who have been homeless are emerging from a very stressful situation,” says McDonald, also associate dean for research in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “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.”

Family Compass will make Project Support available through a new partnership with the Housing Crisis Center in Dallas. “The prevalence of families who are homeless in Dallas continues to escalate,” says Jessica Trudeau, executive director of Family Compass. “The scientific literature indicates that housing instability places children at risk for abuse.”

An $18,000 grant to SMU from Verizon Foundation will fund both the program and an in-depth evaluation of Project Support’s impact. Doctoral students from the Psychology Department will conduct assessments of the families who participate in the program.

Mental health professionals meet with families weekly in their homes for up to six months. Caregivers learn specific skills, including how to pay attention to and play with their children, how to listen to and comfort them, how to offer praise, how to give appropriate instructions, and how to respond to misbehavior.

Therapists also provide mothers with emotional support, help them access resources such as Medicaid, evaluate the adequacy of the family’s living conditions and the quality of their child-care.