In 1996, federal legislation was enacted that transformed the nations welfare system to a program that requires needy parents to work in exchange for time-limited cash assistance--TANF. This new law also established two additional purposes of the block grant now provided to states: to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families and to reduce the number of nonmarital pregnancies. In Oklahoma, the TANF program is operated through the states DHS, the agency that also administers and funds the OMI.
OMI leadership gave high priority to engaging local TANF offices in the initiative, although implementation in this agency has involved substantial trial and error. The emphasis on the TANF population is consistent with the OMI goal of reducing rates of divorce and unwed childbearing. Many TANF recipients are unmarried parents who may be at risk of having further children out of wedlock. The majority are single parents, some of whom are involved in intimate relationships. The OMI thus reasoned that information about relationships and marriage could be beneficial for these and future relationships.
Initial skepticism. In 2003, when county offices were first approached about implementing workshops, the OMI encountered some resistance. County administrators and staff felt discomfort with what some perceived as an effort to promote marriage in an agency in which the majority of clients are unwed parents. Despite this initial skepticism, several offices felt aspects of the PREP® curriculum, such as its focus on communication skills, could be useful to TANF clients in employment settings and within their families. Thus, early priorities were focused on worker referrals to existing workshops rather than direct services within TANF offices. Although some offices agreed to try the workshops, staff were not fully satisfied with the fit, and it was not until late 2005, when the OMI began to offer Within My Reach, a formal adaptation of PREP®, that any substantial implementation of workshops actually began.
Curriculum adaptation. DHS staff who initially offered workshops felt that the PREP® curriculum was not entirely appropriate for their audience, largely single mothers (and a few single fathers). Some said they felt offended by references to marriage, whether overt or implied. Others noted that the curriculum was designed to be presented to couples, rather than individuals; hence numerous exercises intended for couples were awkward. Local DHS staff and administrators thought ending abusive or unhealthy relationships and choosing more stable partners should be given greater attention in the curriculum than sustaining existing relationships.
To respond to these concerns, the OMI engaged the PREP® curriculum developers and experts in low-income families and domestic violence in a two-year process to develop a formal adaptation specifically for disadvantaged single parents. Because past and current domestic violence is thought to be prevalent in this population, a major emphasis of the Within My Reach curriculum is to help parents recognize healthy relationships, and for those not in relationships, to learn to choose healthier partners in the future. The OMI sees this strategy as one step toward preparation for healthy marriage. Training of DHS staff on the new curriculum began in October 2005. It has been received favorably by DHS staff and their clients. TANF agencies that offer OMI workshops now use Within My Reach in place of the standard PREP® curriculum.
Decentralization. The TANF system is decentralized in Oklahoma, so although state leaders were supportive of the initiative, they were reluctant to direct or mandate that local sites implement OMI services. Oklahoma DHS operates the TANF program through county-based offices with their own directors, grouped into six geographic areas each led by a regional office. Therefore, the OMI has had to build support and interest in each area and county.
Implementation. Because workshops for TANF participants were not mandated by DHS, to date they have been established in some regions but more sporadic in others. In DHS Area 3 (which includes Oklahoma City) and Area 4, county offices include Within My Reach as part of the mandatory orientation for all new TANF recipients. According to OMI sources, a total of 4,660 TANF recipients across the state have now received PREP® or Within My Reach material.
Initially, finding the appropriate fit staffing, setting, timing for delivery of OMI material in the TANF context involved addressing challenges that became clear in working with the Area 3 offices. Caseworkers did not usually have time to teach PREP® or Within My Reach in addition to their other job responsibilities. Initial attempts at implementation focused on the staff at workforce centers, who provide instruction in job readiness and other employment skills. Yet there were concerns about duplication of services already offered at some TANF offices and in the end, the centers management ended delivery of OMI workshops. (Some workforce centers, however, continue to make referrals to OMI workshops conducted in other venues.)
Ultimately, the OMI material began to be provided by career development specialists as part of the initial mandatory orientation for all new TANF recipients. In Area 3, the orientation in which Within My Reach is embedded lasts a week, includes 12 hours of Within My Reach, and typically involves four to eight participants, depending on the number of applicants in the previous week. Other agencies or local offices may use other formats in providing the material.
Finding a regular slot for PREP® has made it a more comfortable fit in Area 3. Including the material during orientation meant that neither staff nor clients had to look for ways to fit it into the program flow or into their work schedules. The strategy may present one challenge, however. It is possible that the impact of the Within My Reach material is diminished during the information-packed mandatory orientation and may not stand out from the other activities and information presented during the week. Some of the past participants interviewed for this study had more difficulty remembering basic Within My Reach concepts than did those people who received the material in other settings. These TANF clients indicated that many of the orientation activities had blurred together in their minds. The participants we spoke with may or may not be typical of the broader population of TANF recipients who take Within My Reach as part of their orientations.
Achieving sustained implementation. DHS workshop leaders in Area 3 who were interviewed for this study indicated that the Within My Reach workshops fit well with the mission of their agencies. They thought the communication and conflict resolution tools and strategies were valuable soft skills that would be useful in employment settings, not just within intimate relationships. Although their clients are unmarried, many have dating partners, and local TANF staff realized that these partners can affect the decisions and well-being of their clients so workshop leaders also see additional potential benefits to presenting Within My Reach.