Rutgers-Camden Researchers Awarded $4 million Contract for "Strengthening Families" Project in South Jersey

CAMDEN —A significant number of “working poor” families in southern New Jersey are having difficulty accessing crucial support services to ensure child well-being and financial stability.

They are families whose incomes are too high to qualify for many assistance programs, yet too low to make it on their own; a group of people who could use the support, but fall through the cracks.

“They end up on the fringes,” says Robin Stevens, an assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers–Camden.

Stevens is leading a unique interdisciplinary effort at Rutgers–Camden that aims to improve the lives of working poor families in Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties. 

Through its Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs, Rutgers–Camden is performing an intensive longitudinal study to observe how collaboration between social service organizations in those counties can improve child well-being, financial stability, and the relationship between children and their caregivers. 

The study is being funded by a $4 million contract awarded to Rutgers–Camden by the Pascale Sykes Foundation, which supports a number of innovative, long-range programs that promote the integrity, independence, and well-being of families.

“For these families, the hope is that they’re able to get the type of leverage they need in difficult times to move past their economic situation,” Stevens says.

To achieve this, Pascale Sykes is facilitating the cooperation of organizations within the four counties that work with families or children. By bringing together these groups and allowing them to pool their resources, children and families can experience better outcomes, Stevens says.

The collaborating organizations include schools, police departments, faith-based centers, parent counselors, literacy and financial literacy programs, and family crisis intervention providers, along with a wide range of other services.

Rutgers–Camden is evaluating nine different collaborations to determine if they make a difference in improving the lives of families and children.

 “The idea is to focus on and bring together a core group of organizations committed to wrapping their arms around families,” says Gwendolyn Harris, executive director of the Rand Institute at Rutgers–Camden. “It’s easy for these organizations to work in isolation, but if they work together and coordinate their activities, they can more effectively meet the needs of these families.”

Pascale Sykes selected the four counties in part because of statistics gathered by Kids Count, a national state-by-state effort to track the well-being of children in the United States.

According to the survey, Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties rank among the New Jersey’s worst in terms of poverty, child abuse, child neglect, early childhood education, out-of-home placement, teenage pregnancy, and other child well-being issues.

In January 2013, the Rutgers–Camden researchers will begin interviewing 80 families in the four counties that have volunteered to participate in the study. By 2014, up to 160 families will be observed and interviewed.

Each family enrolled the study will have different needs or goals, such as improving relationships and communication between children and their parents or caregivers, reducing behavior problems in at-risk youth, and helping families become more financially stable.

By observing the collaborations and interviewing participating families over a five-year period, the Rutgers–Camden researchers will understand how families change and how their lives improve when they interact with the collaborating organizations.

Families in the four South Jersey counties do not have access to the number of services available to those living in more urban areas, making the collaboration between existing organizations all the more critical.

“The hope is that by developing this new model of service delivery, it takes hold in these communities beyond the five-year study in such a way that it becomes the norm, the regular way of doing business, and that the services will spill over to the broader community long after the Pascale Sykes study is done,” Harris says.

The Rutgers–Camden researchers are using a wide range of evaluative methods throughout the study, including surveys and focus groups, to understand the functionality of the collaborations and to see how the families are benefitting and improving over time.

The data is being further analyzed by Paul Jargowsky, a professor of public policy and the director of the Center for Urban Research and Urban Education at Rutgers–Camden, and Stacia Gilliard- Matthews, a Rutgers–Camden assistant professor of criminal justice.

Gilliard-Matthews is overseeing the network analysis that will track relationships among the organizations in each of the collaboratives over time.

Jargowsky is helping the research team with observing the well-being of the children, the families’ financial stability, and family relationships while they work with the collaborating organizations over the course of the study, then comparing the results with the larger population.

 “If it works, we would expect clear capacity building in southern New Jersey,” Stevens says. “I think organizations working in South Jersey will be more aware of everything they can offer a family. I think it will change the way service is delivered. It will allow organizations to learn new methods to meet the needs of working families.”

For more information about Rutgers–Camden news stories, visit us at news.camden.rutgers.edu

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