Since its launch in 1999, Cincinnati Children’s Every Child Succeeds home visiting program has helped thousands of first-time, low-income mothers in the Cincinnati region raise healthier babies. New moms get better prenatal care, well baby checks, parenting information and counseling for maternal depression.

But what about the dads?

“Home visiting programs around the country are grappling with the question of what to do about fathers,” says Robert Ammerman, PhD, scientific director of Every Child Succeeds and professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology. “There are about 500,000 families nationwide involved in home visiting programs. In most of those programs , the curriculum provides no clear role for fathers.”

But as Every Child Succeeds collected data from the 18,000 families it has served, it became clear that fathers were much more involved in family life than expected. Of the mothers in the program, 6 percent are married. Yet 86 percent of fathers were seeing their children weekly and 67 percent were interacting with them daily. 

Helping dads stay involved

“Even when the fathers were not living in the home, many were still involved in the child’s life.  Unfortunately, we also found that these rates drop off significantly over time,” Ammerman says.

Now, Every Child Succeeds is using a five-year, $2.7 million grant to study a new program designed to encourage more fathers to stay involved with their children. The project, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is recruiting up to 300 families to evaluate a “co-parenting” program that would offer a more formal way for fathers to be involved in the home visiting program. The study began in August 2012.

“Many people who grow up in poverty do not have good role models for parenting,” Ammerman says. “The idea behind co-parenting is to begin teaching parents – before the child is born -- how to work together in healthy and cooperative ways even if they are not together as a couple.”

Program teaches co-parenting

To promote co-parenting, Every Child Succeeds has adapted a program called Family Foundations, which was created a decade ago by Mark Feinberg, PhD, a psychologist at Penn State University. His program was designed as a series of clinic-based, group sessions. In partnership with Feinberg, Every Child Succeeds has modified the curriculum so that it can be used during home visits.

“Couples learn the skills they need to co-parent,” Ammerman says. “How do you make decisions? How do you support each other? How are you going to resolve the inevitable issues that come up? The couples that have gone through Family Foundations have done very well when compared to similar couples who did not go through the program.”

This is the third large-scale research project to be pursued by Every Child Succeeds. Previous projects have focused on maternal depression and child safety in the home. In fact, several other home visiting programs nationwide are using the maternal depression program.

“Research and scholarship have always been part of Every Child Succeeds,” Ammerman says.  “If this adaptation works well, then we will have something that can be applied much more broadly around the country.”