Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): A Process Evaluation. Conclusions


Looking across the OMIs experiences implementing marriage initiative services in public institutions and private agencies, several factors emerge as important determinants of implementation success:  the alignment of mission and approach; appropriateness of the curriculum for the agencys clientele; buy-in of frontline staff; decentralized agency structure; and recruitment of participants. 

Success hinges on alignment of mission and approach.  The OMI experience suggests that integrating marriage education services into the delivery systems of public agencies and private institutions requires formulating an approach and message that correspond to the organizations mission, goals, and service delivery methods in meaningful ways.  The very organizational features that are attractive for the initiatives implementation  infrastructure and existing service delivery staff  can be disadvantages if the fit is not good. 

The fit between the OMIs mission, goals, and approach and those of the states high school system helped make implementation successful in Oklahoma high schools.  The mission of high schools is to educate youth, and the existence of classes about marriage and family meant that there was already a good fit with the OMI mission.  The OMIs group-based service delivery method and focus on skills were aligned with the way high schools educate youth.  Despite these advantages, however, implementation might not have succeeded if the OMI had not recognized that its curriculum needed to be adapted for young people who are typically at an earlier developmental stage than those who are engaged, cohabiting, or married.  Adapting the curriculum to fit the needs of the agencys clients  students  was undoubtedly a central element in the widespread acceptance by teachers and students alike.

In contrast, misalignment with the mission of FTOP (the First Time Offenders Program) persists.  Although FTOP staff conducted many workshops that included OMI material, they remained uncomfortable with the curriculum and resisted the focus on marriage and the emphasis on including both parents.  Although FTOPs mission of deterring juveniles from committing future offenses and the OMIs goal of strengthening families were not inconsistent, there was little alignment in the approach.  With most FTOP families headed by single parents, and no legal requirement for both parents to attend when there were two parents, FTOP found it difficult to address couple relationships. 

FTOP also questioned whether this was the most pressing need for families with a child showing behavioral problems.  The parent-child relationship seemed a more appropriate concern to FTOP staff; they reported that applying a curriculum meant for intimate partners to the parent child relationship was awkward.  To address this misalignment issue, OMI staff are currently working with FTOP to modify the curriculum.

The OMIs experience with the states TANF agency illustrates how a focused effort to align the OMIs goals and approach with those of the agency can work.  In the OMIs early years, administrators and frontline staff at TANF agencies expressed resistance to delivering PREP® workshops.  Many felt discomfort with what they perceived as an effort to promote marriage in an agency whose clients are mostly single parents.  They felt that the exercises intended for couples were inappropriate for single parents, and were concerned that the focus on sustaining healthy relationships or marriage did little to help individuals choose healthier partners and avoid abusive situations.  Staff at workforce centers felt that focusing on relationships was not consistent with their mission to prepare individuals for employment.  In response to these concerns, the OMI asked the curriculum developers and experts in the areas of low-income women and domestic violence to develop an adaptation that would be more relevant to the needs of TANF recipients, focusing on both avoiding abusive situations and skills for building healthy relationships and marriage.  This adaptation has been well received and resulted in a substantial increase in the number of workshops provided to TANF recipients.

The curriculum must respond to the needs and interests of agency clients.  Unlike targeted marriage strengthening programs that serve a single specific population, a statewide initiative that strives to change the culture of marriage and divorce on a broad level must be capable of speaking to the needs and interests of individuals in many different types of relationships and circumstances.  Given the wide variety of existing marriage education curricula, one solution is to use different curricula matched to each population of interest.  The OMI preferred instead to rely on a single curriculum, to provide a sense of unity and common language regarding relationship and marriage skills, both to ease statewide implementation and because many other curricula are not necessarily grounded in empirical research.  This choice meant that the OMI had to find ways for a single curriculum to be relevant for people who vary along the spectrum of relationship development. 

The OMI met this challenge for several groups.  Three examples stand out:  the curriculum adaptation for high school students, the redesigned curriculum for single at-risk parents, and the less formal adaptation for adoptive parents.  The OMI felt that premarital education in its usual form was not suited to youth who are in casual dating relationships, or not actively in relationships, but also believed that learning about healthy relationships and marriage could increase their odds of eventually building and maintaining healthy marriages.  Similarly, the OMI came to believe that one of the greatest needs of single mothers, many with a history of unhealthy or abusive relationships, is to learn how to recognize healthy relationship partners and to choose better in their next relationship, rather than focusing exclusively on marriage preparation.  These experiences led the OMI to supplement, adapt, or revise its selected statewide curriculum, PREP®, to foster development and implementation of Connections-PREP®, Within My Reach, and ENRICH and PREP® used together. 

The OMI experience raises, but cannot answer, issues about the relative success of such formal adaptations compared to more informal adjustments.  In the above examples, the curriculum developers or other experts created the adaptations.  In other situations in the OMI experience to date, adaptations have been left up to individual workshop leaders who know their audience but may have little experience or training in developing or tailoring curriculum.  The extent to which these alterations occur, and their appropriateness, are largely unknown because the modifications are undocumented and workshop leaders are not monitored by the curriculum developers, other clinicians, or the OMI.  

Implementation often depends on buy-in among frontline staff. The OMIs experiences working with several agencies indicate that even though a program may have the right tracks on which to run the OMI program, a lack of buy-in or resistance among staff can mean low productivity or the end of services when high-level agency support changes.  Like other public agencies with access to potential participants through locally-based programs and existing service-delivery staff, Child Guidance and Head Start appeared to be ideal candidates for implementing OMI workshops.  Yet the highly trained clinical staff at Child Guidance were more accustomed to providing behavioral health services to individuals one-on-one, rather than in group settings of the sort that OMI offers.  Some were frustrated that they were required to deliver marriage education when they felt this intervention was not what their families needed most.  The presence of a highly placed champion for the OMI at the Child Guidance program resulted in the production of many workshops in the OMIs early years.  Once this leader left the agency, frontline staff did not carry on.  Head Start directors and staff remained concerned about that surplus funding being dedicated to strengthening families through a focus on marriage and relationships, rather than for early childhood intervention, and led few OMI workshops over the years.

Decentralization can be a challenge to obtaining the full benefit of implementation within an agency that has statewide infrastructure. Facilitating the delivery of OMI services through staff at public institutions has proved fruitful in many ways.  The data bear out that large numbers of staff have been trained as workshop leaders, and large numbers of agency clients have participated in OMI services in various regions of the state.  The services are provided in many sectors of society, involving people in various types of relationships and circumstances. 

Nevertheless, decentralization means that attention must be paid to interacting directly with local agencies and staff if wide implementation is to be achieved.  In Oklahoma, it has not been possible for any agency or institution with a statewide infrastructure to implement OMI services at every local program.  Although state leadership may be enthusiastic about the OMI mission, they are reluctant to impose requirements on local offices.  For example, Oklahomas TANF agencies are county-run, and like the correctional centers, they have considerable autonomy in deciding what services to offer.  Even in high schools, the OMI-sponsored curriculum is an elective and not necessarily offered at every high school.  The choice of whether to use the curriculum is left up to individual teachers.  Thus, gaining the support of high-level leadership and management is a necessary but insufficient requirement for widespread implementation. 

Recruitment in the institutional sector works best when agencies are able to enroll sufficient numbers of participants from their existing clientele.  When agencies could rely on their continuing source of clients  whether they are high school students, prison inmates, parents of juvenile offenders, or adoptive parents  recruitment was rarely an issue.  In other cases, where the volume of agency clients was not adequate to support ongoing workshops, or where agency clients were perceived not to be highly interested, recruitment became a barrier to full implementation.  For example, resources for supporting recruitment efforts became an issue when it turned out that staff at Cooperative Extension Services and Child Guidance needed to go beyond their existing clientele to find participants. 

Piloting services may pave the way for greater success in full implementation.  To identify and learn how to address potential issues with recruitment, mission fit, curriculum appropriateness, and others, it may be useful to first pilot services in one or two counties or local areas, as the OMI did in later efforts with the high school and corrections sectors.  Conducting pilots can allow an initiative to identify issues and find ways to address them prior to full implementation.  Starting incrementally may also build the confidence of both state-level management and local providers.  When services are eventually rolled out statewide, other areas then have a model to follow.

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