December 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 6 // Ideas at Work // 6IAW1

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Extension Service and Healthy Families

This article describes the process of developing collaborative partnerships for the purpose of providing parent education and support services for new parents in Oklahoma. Through partnering, the Oklahoma Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, and the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service have expanded Healthy Families from a pilot site to fourteen programs within three years. Experiences in Oklahoma suggest that collaboration, while bringing additional resources and supports, takes time, effort, and new ways of thinking and interacting.

Jo Robertson
Assistant Professor
Department of Special Education
Murray State University
Murray, Kentucky
Internet address:

Arlene Fulton
Child Development Specialist
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma
Internet address:

Marilyn S. Buck
Central District Director
Wisconsin Cooperative Extension
Stevens Point, Wisconsin

Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service has been involved in parent education through home visitation since the mid-1980s. Initially this program used volunteers. In 1991, an Extension Service/U. S. Department of Agriculture Youth-at- Risk grant enabled one county to employ trained home visitors. Oklahoma Child Abuse Prevention funding, instituted in 1991 through the Oklahoma Department of Health, enabled Oklahoma State University to employ home visitors in additional counties.

In 1992, Healthy Families Oklahoma evolved through a statewide collaboration initiated by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and the Oklahoma Committee to Prevent Child Abuse. At the national level, the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and the Cooperative Extension Service submitted a proposal to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to develop pilot programs around the country using the Healthy Families America model.

Pottawatomie County was selected in 1994 as one of the three national pilot sites funded. Additional grants, available in 1996 from federal Family Preservation and Support and Office of Child Abuse, expanded the Healthy Families program. Currently, Oklahoma State University operates Healthy Families programs in ten counties. There are a total of nineteen Healthy Families programs statewide.

Healthy Families America, launched by the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse in 1992, is an initiative to establish a universal, voluntary home visitor system for all new parents to help their children have a healthy start. Research over the last two decades has consistently confirmed that providing parent education and support services about the time of a baby's birth reduces the risk of child abuse and contributes to positive child and family outcomes.

Healthy Families Oklahoma is a parent education/support program for first-time parents. Parents voluntarily enroll during pregnancy, or after the birth of their babies, and may continue to receive services until their children are five years of age. Services include home visits, linkage to community resources such as a health care provider, monthly group meetings, support, and parent education focusing on parenting skills, child development, child health, and other aspects of family functioning. The program builds on family strengths and offers services that meet the needs of family members.

As a part of the ongoing collaborative partnership between Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service and the Oklahoma Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, First Steps programs, using trained volunteer home visitors, have been established in five rural counties in Oklahoma as another method of providing education and support to new parents. First Steps programs are less intensive and provide short term (two-five months) education and support.

Current state collaborators include the Cooperative Extension Service, Oklahoma Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, Oklahoma Department of Health, Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, Headstart, Oklahoma Parents as Teachers, Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth, and the Oklahoma Child Abuse Prevention Coalition. Additionally, Healthy Families programs partner with a variety of local community agencies, family advocates, and service providers.

Collaboration Activities

Collaboration is the key to making Healthy Families Oklahoma programs successful. There are multiple levels of collaboration focusing on the overburdened families who enroll in Healthy Families programs. Local program advisory committees composed of community agencies and organizations provide guidance, resources and services, and assist programs in connecting with referral agencies such as the health department, WIC, Indian Health Services, physicians, hospitals, and schools. Healthy Families sites have initiated collaborative activities with other community parent education programs such as Parents As Teachers, Early Head Start, and Children First (home visitation by nurses through the health department). Activities have included determining how parent confidentiality at the time of referral will be handled, developing a common brochure and designating a central point of intake in the community for all programs.

Staff from community programs visit referral agencies together, explaining services and enrollment criteria. In addition, these programs have co-sponsored community events for families as well as community in-service education sessions. Community partners have found that regular meetings enhance collaboration.

The Healthy Families Oklahoma state collaborative partners bring together statewide resources and insight. State leaders are working together to develop a stable funding base and a statewide system of evaluation, technical assistance and training, and credentialing for home visitation programs. Additionally, state leaders co-sponsor state conferences and co-present at state meetings.

As part of the commitment to training, a Healthy Families state training team composed of staff from the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and the Oklahoma Committee to Prevent Child Abuse has completed requirements for becoming Healthy Families America trainers. Both these agencies collaboratively provide technical assistance and on-going training to program sites. The Oklahoma Child Abuse Prevention Coalition Legislative Network provides educational information to governmental officials and agencies to inform them of the impact of Healthy Families.

The new programs have created the opportunity for new collaborations within the Cooperative Extension Service. Home visitation and nutrition education staffs have found much in common and benefit from similar in-service education topics as well as networking opportunities. An annual state conference is held for Cooperative Extension staff delivering nutrition and parent education through home visits. Home visitation staff have been trained in Cooperative Extension curriculum materials such as money management and nutrition.

All these partnerships provide strengths (vision, leadership, resources, and support) and challenges (different systems and processes, communication, staff changes, and turf issues). In Oklahoma, these challenges have been overcome by having a common vision and mutual respect and through building trusting relationships. Partnerships maximize efficient use of scarce resources, prevent duplication of services, and allow programs to link families with an array of services to meet their unique needs. Collaboration is critical to meeting the needs of the diverse families served by these programs.