family with kids have fun at home

As the old adage goes, “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” According to groundbreaking research from Rutgers University–Camden, South Jersey families receiving assistance from the Whole Families Approach, a program that pools social-service providers together in an effort to offer improved support, have experienced better outcomes than non-participants. 

Low-income families participating in the initiative have had more stable social support and increased levels of financial stability during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study from the university’s Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs. The study, supported with a nine-year grant from the Pascale Sykes Foundation, shows how families using the Whole Families Approach, which pools social-service organizations in Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, have enjoyed greater success in defining and achieving attainable goals.

“Our data shows that, more than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, this collaboration has helped improve child well-being, financial stability and the relationship between children and their caregivers,” said Ross Whiting, associate director of the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs and principal investigator of the study.

Whiting said these collaboratives of nonprofit social-service organizations work one-on-one with family advocates to identify family goals. They then support the family by improving communication within the family, with outside organizations and by leveraging the organizations’ resources.

Children participating in the program are found to benefit from engagement with external tutoring and mentoring resources. Whiting noted that a portion of this evaluation data was used to write and pass a May 2021 bill that will expand the Clayton Model Pilot Program in the New Jersey Department of Education to include 30 schools by 2026. The innovative program will provide school-based, social-emotional learning supports to students in kindergarten through fifth grade in up to 10 public schools in three counties, including at least one school in the northern, central and southern regions of New Jersey.

“The COVID-19 pandemic confronted many families with a host of new financial, educational and interpersonal issues,” said Rutgers-Camden Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis. “I applaud the Rand Institute for a successful exploration of the ways in which advocacy and resources can be leveraged to provide the best possible support for those in need.”

In a study, the research team focused on a subset of Hispanic immigrant families and found that these family members’ abilities to rely on one another bolstered a sense of resilience and support that carried many of them forward. It also strengthened their desire for autonomy and, in some cases, improved community engagement.

“These findings highlight the importance of a family-centered intervention that can be adapted to meet clients where they are and help them get where they want to be,” Whiting said.

The Rutgers–Camden research center also evaluated the implementation of the Whole Family Approach by the Family Strengthening Network (FSN), a Bridgeton-based collaborative, and found that families served by FSN reported high levels of relationship quality with their family advocate, high levels of perceived social support and high levels of interpersonal belonging.

“As a whole, people who work with family advocates have significantly positive outcomes that may be attributed to the efficacy and strength of the relationship they have with their family advocate,” Whiting said. “Families participating in the Whole Families Approach have shown that they are better equipped to handle their challenges on an ongoing basis.”