Stronger marriages strengthen kids' odds

Published August 23, 2005

If you want to help a child, help his mom and dad stay together.

In essence, this is the philosophy of the state Department of Children and Families and the federal Administration for Children and Families.

President Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush have made strengthening marriages a priority, and those efforts will get something of a showcase in Tampa this week.

A Hispanic Healthy Marriage Initiative round table will be from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday at Capdevilla at La Teresita Restaurant, 3248 W Columbus Drive. Officials from Hispanic organizations and other groups involved with the Hispanic community have been invited to learn how to help Hispanic couples.

Why Hispanics? On its Web site, the Administration for Children and Families offers a number of statistics on why this group needs a focused strategy. Since 1995, Hispanics have had the greatest increase in out-of-wedlock births of any ethnic group, and the teen pregnancy rate for Hispanics is 69 percent higher than the national average.

Hispanics, however, are not the only target group. The federal government also has an African American Healthy Marriage Initiative, and both programs are part of an overall effort to help those who choose marriage develop skills to sustain the union.

State and federal officials are emphasizing marriages because studies indicate children who grow up in two-parent families do better on a host of outcomes than those who do not. Married couples have more wealth, their children tend to enjoy better physical health and the family members are less likely to perpetrate or be the victim of a violent crime.

Those who attend Wednesday will learn about how to access $1.5-billion in federal funds expected to come down the pipe. Frank Fuentes, deputy commissioner for the Administration for Children and Families, will join DCF officials during the round-table discussion.

On the surface, it all sounds good. If you start with the simple fact that many children are being raised without a male role model, the need to strengthen families is an important preventive measure.

Yet counseling is just one aspect.

The federal administration makes it clear this initiative is not about trapping people in abusive relationships or forcing people to get married.

It seems to me, however, creating families is as important as strengthening them. Young males need to know the facts about marriage and the importance of being a part of their children's lives. It's worth noting the federal government also has a Fatherhood Initiative.

We have to ask why many young men don't feel compelled to head a family, and we have to ask why so many young women are willing to go it alone.

Perhaps it's because single-parent families are so common in their lives they don't see anything wrong with it. If we show those statistics to young people, before they choose to have children, maybe they will act more responsibly.

The greatest challenge is changing a mind-set and that starts with family and sex education.

Planned Parenthood is having an open house at 6 p.m. today at the Source Teen Theater, 1005 W Busch Blvd., Suite 203, for a five-week sex education course that begins Aug. 30.

It will be interesting to see what kind of turnout the organization receives after County Commissioner Ronda Storms led a successful effort to withhold from the group nearly $40,000 in county funding.

Storms' objection was rooted in the fact that Planned Parenthood supports women's reproductive rights. But in all this talk about strengthening families, the goal of educating our young people has to be paramount. Whether you're antiabortion or for abortion rights, the common goal has to be preventing young women from getting to the point where they have to make such a difficult decision.

The approach needs to be comprehensive because the issue is complex. And anyone willing to help needs to be embraced, despite disagreements on other levels.

If we as a society want to strengthen families, we need to start acting like a family.

That's all I'm saying.

--Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com