Talking to Margaret McKenna, you realize that public health can be about offering some of the most vulnerable members of society a chance at a good life. As an evaluation program manager for the University of Washington's Northwest Institute for Children and Families, McKenna evaluates programs that help struggling families grow and thrive. She helps public and private agencies that provide human service programs clarify their goals and measure the successes of their programs. Her work ensures that programs designed to help strengthen families and improve the lives of children really do work. "I think it is essential that any intervention needs to be evaluated so that programs can continue and funders will provide grants for them," Maggie says. "It is a service to the community."
For poor, struggling families, the odds can often be overwhelming. Many of the parents are young and lack job skills that could help them provide for their families. Compounding these stressors, some parents do not have social networks to help them cope with the demands of raising children. Too many children slip through the cracks, and are neglected, abused, or simply without the necessary resources to reach their full potential. Sometimes this means children don't do as well in school, or they may get caught in the revolving door of foster care. Much of McKenna's work starts from the premise, "What if we could prevent all that in the first place?"
Right now, McKenna works with a program that helps fathers become more involved with their families. The program, called First A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) Fatherhood Responsibility Engagement and Services in Head Start, offers free classes that meet once a week for 9 to 13 weeks. Fathers can choose to participate in 3 different curricula, from classes that teach them about child development to classes that help them build employment skills. With increased knowledge about families or increased job skills, these fathers can provide more emotional or financial support to their families and the kids directly benefit. "It works from a philosophy of primary prevention," McKenna says. "We know that when fathers are involved in their lives, the children have better social and educational outcomes."
In her 17 years as a program evaluator, McKenna has worked with many agencies to prevent child abuse and neglect, and promote healthy child development. One peer-support program, Program for Early Parent Support, or PEPS, is designed to help parents with infants in the earliest stages of life (newborn to 4 months, according to www.pepsgroup.org). "Parents of young infants come together in a leader-facilitated group. They meet weekly for 12 weeks," McKenna says. "It helps them avoid social isolation, increase peer networks, increase knowledge of child development."
Having a child can be an overwhelming experience, especially for people who are already struggling financially or who don't have a community of friends and family to support them. Parents who are depressed and isolated are more at risk to abuse or neglect their children. So, peer-support programs like PEPS help parents connect to others experiencing the same challenges. By providing these parents with a solid network of people they can talk to for friendship, advice, child development information, or simple companionship, these programs can take some of the burden off of parents to deal with everything alone. The improvement in parents' knowledge and support translates to better lives for their children.
The courts deal with child abuse and neglect. Their focus is on damage control and limiting the harm once it has occurred. But public health prevention programs like the ones McKenna evaluates are grounded in a more hopeful premise they are rooted in the conviction that we can avert disaster before it happens. "These projects are primary prevention projects that increase education and help develop skills," McKenna says. "The focus has been on prevention."