Couples take baby steps to 'I Do'

The Baltimore Sun

Delonte Mohamed was taken with Satrina McDuffie's intuitive nature. She was unable to resist his "mushy side," hidden to most by a rough exterior. Within a few months, they knew: It was love.

A year later, the couple are expecting a baby boy, adding to McDuffie's brood of two toddlers. Money is tight, their families disapprove of the relationship, and they bicker a lot.

Still, they hope to get married one day. They're just not sure how to get there.

So every Tuesday, McDuffie, 22, and Mohamed, 21, attend a counseling program at Baltimore's Center for Urban Families tailored to couples like them: young, struggling and with a baby on the way.

It's part of a nationwide marriage movement aimed at combating poverty. Five years ago, President Bush announced the strategy in his Healthy Marriage Initiative. Last year, Congress approved $150 million annually for the next five years for marriage and fatherhood programs, the Welfare Reauthorization Act. An arm of the effort targets African-Americans, who have the lowest marriage rates.

Nationwide, nearly 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers, according to 2004 figures from National Center for Health Statistics. While 45 percent of black adults have never been married, that figure is 27 percent for whites, according to 2006 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For years, parents, policy experts and even Bill Cosby have warned of the troubles facing fractured black families.

Now, people are taking notice. From "Marry Your Baby Daddy Day" in New York, to marriage ministries in Baltimore churches, private organizations and social service agencies are encouraging African-Americans to wed.

The programs have critics across the political spectrum. Liberals say slogans and small-scale counseling efforts are oversold as the fix to a complex problem. Conservatives don't want the government involved in the intimate contract of marriage. And nobody wants to urge couples into nuptials before they're ready, a move that could ultimately lead to divorce.

But many policy experts see hope in Baltimore's model, which coaches couples how to keep their fragile families intact, rather than pushing them to the altar.

It's also a closely watched experiment. Launched last year, the Building Strong Families program became one of seven sites nationwide taking part in a federally funded research study examining how low-income minorities respond to counseling.

"Public policy has to be grounded in reality," said Joseph T. Jones Jr., president of the Center for Urban Families, formerly know as the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development.

With the help of John and Julie Gottman, leaders in the field of relationship counseling, Jones developed a curriculum to offer low-income minorities counseling that is typically reserved for upper- and middle-class couples.

The program lasts six months, exploring topics such as compromise and communication, and participants receive free transportation, child care and dinner at every session.

Recruiters comb Baltimore streets and maternity wards seeking couples who are expecting or have just had a child.

Jones calls the time surrounding a child's birth the "magic moment" for a couple. Studies show that without help, many split within the first year, he said.

The $6.1 million program is funded by the Administration for Children and the Annie E. Casey Foundation through 2010. Couples are randomly assigned, so that only half actually receives counseling.

A Princeton-based firm, Mathmatica Policy Research, will follow couples for five years and conclude with a report.

When the marriage movement took off, Jones was skeptical. He remembers bristling at policy conferences on the challenges confronting black couples. Too often, there were few African-Americans in the room.

"Some people were having conversations about people of color and were not grounded in the reality of what people are really like," he said.

Jones became adamant that a successful program must be centered in urban realities.

"It makes no sense to me to say to a family, 'If you take part in this and you get married, you will be OK,'" he said. "When the gas bill comes in and you're trying to find quality and affordable health care, what do you do?"

Grooming fathers is key, he said. Many of the men Jones had worked with through his center struggled to find decent jobs because of criminal records and had few role models. Many wanted to be good fathers but didn't know how, he said.

Social policy has focused for too long exclusively on mother and child, Jones said, leaving men to adopt what he calls the "John Wayne theory of manhood."

"Our country was built on socializing men to be providers and protectors," Jones said. "He goes to war, he goes to work, if he falls behind in any way, he must pull himself up by his bootstraps."

Ron Haskins, a former Bush adviser on welfare issues, called the Baltimore project "an excellent experiment," part of what he thinks is a culture shift on parenting.

Liberals have been reluctant to acknowledge the negative impact single-parent households can have on child development, said Haskins, now the co-director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families.

"But in the last few years, the opposition has become muted," he said. "Over time, you restore the value and the traditional belief that the best way to rear children is in married-couple families."

Others say marriage has been oversold as a cure-all.

"I think marriage promotion is one component of a broader way to help poor minority couples improve their standard of living," said Andrew J. Cherlin, Griswold Professor of Public Policy in the sociology department at Johns Hopkins University. "I don't think it can be the only component for the program."

Still, Jones' study offers the best attempt to promote marriage among low-income African-Americans, Cherlin said.

"The question is, can it be duplicated?" he said.

At Building Strong Families counseling sessions, marriage is rarely discussed, although pictures proclaiming "Marriage Works" line the walls.

Of the 305 active participants, six have tied the knot. About 45 percent of couples complete the majority of the program.

Afra Vance White, the program's interim director, calls that progress.

"I don't need this study to tell me anything, I see it working every day," she said. "Once it's over, the couples never want to leave."

At a recent session, McDuffie and Mohamed are the only couple. Two other women are present, their bellies swollen, but their partners are incarcerated. Still, the women attend regularly, said facilitators.

The session features a lively topic - raising children from other partners. It's one of the biggest issues, along with finances and infidelity.

"I got street family," said Mohamed, who was raised by his grandmother, his mother addicted to drugs, his father absent. "And that's about it."

McDuffie, meanwhile, grew up in foster care. When she met Mohamed, she was living in a shelter with her sons, Daeshawn, 2, and Darius, 1.

"They are gonna need that male role model," Mohamed said. "And I'm going to do that."

Their biggest challenge is communication, said McDuffie. Mohamed shuts down when he's angry; she prefers to talk it out. She's becomes upset if he doesn't call when promised. He grows frustrated when she calls him a liar.

But every week, they say they learn something new, from facilitators as well as from other couples.

"There's always something that hits home," McDuffie said. "Hopefully this will give us better skills to resolve conflict and issues I know we will go through in the future."

Mohamed's goal: to create a family styled after the film Soul Food, where a family's trials are overcome at the Sunday dinner table.

"I want to create my own generation, my own family," he said. "I just want us to be together, until one of us dies. Forever."

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