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Young parents apart can raise children together

Getting fathers involved and helping young couples learn to manage stress and communicate.

Young parents apart can raise children together by Kathy Quirk

Raising children is tough enough, but especially challenging for young parents who may
not have expected to add a baby to their lives.

The Young Parenthood Program, based in the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, is focused on helping teens and young adults learn to work together to raise a child – even if they don’t choose to remain a couple.

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There really isn’t another program that works with young couples to help them with co-parenting.

Paul Florsheim, associate professor of public health

“This is the type of community-based research that’s important we do as a school of public health. It’s a real partnership between the academic world and those of us working in the community,” says doctoral student Mary Mazul, a project leader for the program.

Mazul, who was recently named director of population health for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, and fellow project leader Jill Denson, bridge the gap between academics and community work. Denson is director of social work at Milwaukee Health Services Inc., a community-based clinic.

“They are not students working on this research project,” says Paul Florsheim, associate professor of public health, who leads the team. “They are my collaborators, because they both play important roles in the communities where we do our research. I think this speaks to the somewhat unusual nature of our students, some of whom are accomplished professionals.”

The program is designed to help young parents raise their child together, even if they choose not to stay in a relationship. “There really isn’t another program that works with young couples to help them with co-parenting,” says Florsheim.

He started the work at the University of Utah and continued it under a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs. His book on the topic, “The Young Parenthood Program: A Guide to Helping Young Mothers and Fathers Become Effective Co-Parents,” is set for publication this spring.

The issue is vital. Almost half of babies are born to unwed parents, and the rate among parents under the age of 25 is closer to 7 out of 10, which means the very idea of “family” has dramatically changed over the past few decades, according to Florsheim.

Research shows that children born to young mothers who grow up without fathers in their lives are at higher risk for future academic and behavior problems. Getting the fathers involved before the baby is born and helping the young parents learn to manage stress and communicate better may help ease some of these problems, says Florsheim.

When the grant money was cut halfway through the original research project due to federal budget reductions, Florsheim was determined to find a way to make the program work on a shoestring. With funds from the Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families, the current project is testing the effectiveness of training clinicians in community agencies to work with young expectant couples.

Partnering with community agencies was a good fit for the program, and for doctoral students Mazul and Denson, who both work in agencies serving young parents. (Prior to accepting her new position last fall, Mazul, a nurse-midwife, ran the Women’s Outpatient Center at Wheaton Franciscan-St. Joseph Hospital.)

“I’ve worked in the community for 17 years with disenfranchised people impacted by health disparities,” says Denson. “My goal in working toward the doctorate is to improve my ability to help find ways to reduce those health disparities.

“I feel I am a liaison between UWM and Milwaukee Health Services to make sure that those in our organization understand that this is a research study and what the outcomes of this study could mean for the community.”