Elevating Parent Relationships in Lanier County to Support the Whole Family

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From left to right: Jessie Walters, Miranda Walters, Shantell Lambert, Matthew Yarbrough, Kailey Yarbrough, Jay Williams, Esther Barton, and Aaron Barton

By Diana St. Lifer

The ELEVATE for Couples program aims to help couples elevate the quality of their relationships —and that’s exactly what happened for Esther and Aaron Barton.

“We felt comfortable sharing truthful information during our classes—information that had never come up in 14 years of marriage,” Esther said. “We were given tools that helped us listen to one another and accept the thoughts expressed in love.”

Lanier County Family Connection Executive Director Amy Griffin said ELEVATE—a no-cost relationship education program for all couples in committed relationships—was a missing piece from the resources and services the Collaborative offers to support families.

“Classes emphasize that an essential part of being a good parent is having a good relationship with your partner,” explained Griffin. “It’s inspiring to listen to these couples and watch them learn about each other and how to interact.”

Child care and dinner are provided during the eight-week, 12-hour program, which alleviates stress for parents and allows them to have a night out. “The classes were a complete benefit to our family,” Barton said. “The kids loved going there to play with other children, and Aaron and I learned about helpful tools that have enriched our relationship.”

The program teaches ways to elevate the quality of relationships by:

  • practicing self-care;
  • managing stress;
  • prioritizing the relationship;
  • preventing hurtful thoughts and behaviors;
  • handling finances;
  • showing affection and respect; and
  • dealing with differences in healthy ways.

ELEVATE came to Lanier in 2020 as part of a five-year grant. Project F.R.E.E. (Fostering Relationships and Economic Enrichment), a collaboration between the University of Georgia Extension System and community partners across Georgia, developed the curriculum.

“Our Collaborative jumped at the opportunity to implement the program in Lanier,” said Griffin. “This was a gap in services we saw in our community. We helped with parenting but didn’t have anything specifically focused on couples. If we want to strengthen families, we first need to look at the head of the family and take their stress into consideration.”

ELEVATE for Couples, held at Lakeland Methodist Church, complements the Collaborative’s SafeCare program that’s served 168 families with children from birth through age 5 since 2016.

Providers conduct weekly in-home visits to discuss parent-child interaction, home safety, and child health. SafeCare is offered through Promoting Safe and Stable Families, a federal program aimed at preventing child maltreatment, enabling children to remain safely with their families, and ensuring permanency for children in foster care.

The Collaborative—one of six participating in Georgia Family Connection Partnership’s (GaFCP) Family Support Cohort—is focused on developing, implementing, and evaluating child abuse and neglect prevention county-specific strategies.

Lanier had the highest rates of child abuse and neglect in the state in 2009 with rates of 39.2 cases per 1,000 compared to the states rate of 8.9 per 1000. This standing has improved due to targeted work focused on domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse—all areas that contribute to child abuse and neglect. The rate per 1,000 for child abuse and neglect in 2019 was 8—the lowest it’s been in more than a decade, but still higher than the state’s rate of 3.9.

Identifying a family’s needs is the first step to providing the right supports, according to Griffin. There’s an intake process for everyone who utilizes the Collaborative’s Family Resource Center, and for those entering a program, there’s an additional intake process. The SafeCare program, for example, has five assessments to better understand the family’s situation and target assistance.

This data allows the Collaborative to keep track of all the programs and activities in which families participate and better pinpoint the community’s needs. Around 30 families utilize the Family Resource Center that’s located within Family Connection’s office, and a search for a larger location is underway.

In addition to the SafeCare and Kinship Care programs, the Resource Center houses enrollment for ELEVATE and programming for Baby Bulldogs, which promotes language development in the home during the first years of a child’s life. The Collaborative works with Coastal Plains and the local Ministerial Association to connect families with partners to access additional resources.

“The families we serve have so much stress in their lives,” said Griffin. “They are in survival mode. We’ve learned to meet them where they are and help them there first. That’s why time and relationships are such an important factor.”

The Bartons, who also participate in the Collaborative’s Kinship Care Program, had six children ages 5 through 13 in their care when they participated in the program, including their nephew and a foster child they’re seeking to adopt. Esther said ELEVATE is contributing to her family’s success.

“We’ve developed a partnership within our community through Family Connection that’s provided meals for our family and opportunities for us to gather with others who understand the challenges of fostering and kinship care,” she said. “We’ve been blessed financially through donations of clothing, household essentials, resources for birthdays, and more.”

Four couples have completed the ELEVATE program in Lanier, six couples joined the class in October, and Griffin anticipates more growth for the program.

“Knowing how to get the answers you need and who to call when questions come up is a significant resource,” Esther said. “We have 100% implemented the tools provided to us, and it has brought positive change to our home. Aaron and I honor one another in new and significant ways.”

Krystin Dean
GaFCP Communications Specialist

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