Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010
Although many fragile families demonstrate remarkable strengths, with some maintaining stability and promoting family members' well-being while struggling against almost overwhelming odds, these families face disproportionate levels of financial impoverishment, poor health, psychological distress, relationship conflict, and both residential and relationship instability, all of which are risk factors for the development and well-being of children and adolescents.1 A 1998 Fragile Families study made two important discoveries with implications for increasing the stability of these families.2 First, around the time of a child's birth, most unmarried fathers are romantically involved with the child's mother and intend to be actively involved with the child. Second, both couple and father-child relationships in these families tend to dissolve over time.3
Researchers responded to these findings with a call for preventive interventions to capitalize on the "magic moment" around childbirth to improve the quality and stability of couple relationships in fragile families and preserve the active engagement of fathers in the lives of their children.4 But although many couple-relationship interventions and a few father-involvement programs exist as potential program models, no empirical evidence was available to indicate whether these programs, many of which were designed for married couples, would be effective for the unwed parents in fragile families. The obvious strategy, then, was to try to adapt the intervention programs that have been found effective for other families and tailor them to the specific needs of fragile families. In this article, we review evidence on whether existing programs designed to strengthen the relationship between parents and to encourage fathers to become involved in rearing their children might be helpful for at least some types of families with unmarried parents.
We begin by addressing the policy context of the growing interest in this topic. We then present a conceptual model to explain why couple-relationship and father-involvement interventions developed for middle- and low-income married couples might be expected to provide benefits for children of unmarried parents. Next, taking note that couple-relationship and father-involvement approaches to strengthening families are typically mounted by different organizations and offered to different families, we summarize the extensive research on these interventions in middle-income and low-income married couples and the emerging research on those interventions in fragile families. In closing, we summarize how far the family-strengthening field has come and offer suggestions for where it might go from here to be helpful to fragile families. We argue that there are good empirical reasons for integrating interventions for couple relationships and father involvement more fully, so that intervention curricula can take advantage of what is known about the connections between couple-relationship status and quality and the vicissitudes of father involvement.