Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI): A Process Evaluation. Oklahoma Head Start Collaboration

05/23/2008

Many in Oklahoma who were initially skeptical of the appropriateness or workability of providing marriage education services subsequently become involved in the OMI.  Nevertheless, deep concerns about addressing marriage and heartfelt disagreements over allocating resources for low-income families to marriage and relationship education in some cases prevented partnerships sought by OMIs leaders from forming for long periods.

Leaders and supporters of OMI hoped they would find a natural fit between OMI services and Head Start programs.  Head Start is a federally funded early childhood education program for low-income families with children ages 3 to 5.  Since Head Start involves mothers in its program and within the past decade has also begun involving fathers, some federal and state leaders saw working with couples as a next logical step, believing that integrating marriage education into the existing Head Start agenda would be a way to strengthen vulnerable low-income families.  Outreach to Head Start was therefore part of the early efforts to embed OMI services in publicly funded programs.

In 2001 and 2002, the federal agency overseeing national Head Start programs began to encourage all Head Start agencies to integrate marriage education programming into their services.  This effort was accompanied by some controversy and debate about the role of government-funded programs in promoting marriage.  According to staff interviewed for this study, this controversy reached Oklahomas community action agencies, many of whom sponsor Head Start programs.  Suggestions for integrating marriage programming into Head Start created wariness and concerns about pushing marriage among some local Head Start programs  particularly those operated by anti-poverty and advocacy organizations.  In addition, some programs were concerned about whether domestic violence risks were being properly addressed before or while couples were served by the OMI.

To address these concerns, OMI staff made several presentations at state Head Start conferences and other venues in the state, bringing in national leaders in fatherhood programming, domestic violence experts, and others to address issues that were raised.  Some Head Start directors perceived these efforts as unwanted pressure, while others were open to developing service strategies.  Although directors were invited to participate in PREP® training in order to learn more about the content and goals of the curriculum (and some did so), few workshops were conducted.  The states allocation of surplus TANF funds to OMI services was also opposed by some Head Start leaders, who felt the money should have been put towards other needs of low-income families. 

The OMI did not gain traction with Head Start until recently.  Head Start directors gradually came to more fully understand and support the OMIs goals, according to Head Start leadership, and new efforts are now underway to implement healthy marriage programming in several local Head Start agencies.  In October 2007, the Office of Head Start at the federal Administration for Children and Families awarded a healthy marriage initiative grant to Little Dixie Community Action Agency, Inc., a Head Start program located in Hugo, Oklahoma.  The OMI consulted on the grant application and will partner with Head Start on program implementation.

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