Series on Marriage Solutions in Florida - 1/8/07

Smartmarriages smartmarriages at
Mon Jan 8 14:58:06 EST 2007


This excellent series by the St Petersburg Times is a keeper. Clip these for
your files.  - diane
New government initiatives look to encourage a powerful weapon against
poverty and neglect - the stable, two-parent family.

St Petersburg Times
January 7, 2007

> Stephanie Lopez, Mohamed Khan and their daughter, Brianna, get ready for a
> relationship class. Stephanie wants the cultural stamp of approval marriage
> brings. "Knowing that I have a daughter with him, it kind of makes me feel bad
> to say, 'my boyfriend,'" she says.

> For Stephanie, who enrolled in a marriage-education pilot program with Mohamed
> shortly after their daughter was born, relationship classes aren't just about
> getting married; they're about finding a government-funded route out of
> poverty. Along with work and school, marriage seems to offer a shot at
> transformation, from what Stephanie calls "a statistic" to a stable,
> middle-class family.

The Marriage Solution:
Couples course subtracts the faith part (Monday)

Hours after giving birth to her daughter, Stephanie Lopez lay in a hospital
bed, tired and elated. Relatives streamed in to gaze at the baby. Among them
was a woman Stephanie had never seen before.

The stranger wore hospital scrubs, carried a clipboard and extended an
invitation: Did Stephanie and her boyfriend, Mohamed Khan, want to build a
stronger family that would nurture their daughter?

As part of a federally funded program, a home visitor would teach them
parenting skills. Stephanie and Mohamed would attend weekly meetings with
other couples to work on their relationship. They would spend couples'
nights bowling and playing miniature golf.

Mohamed thought it sounded like fun. Stephanie took it as a sign from God.

"I was questioning our relationship a lot," she said later. "We had gotten
in a few arguments, and I had gotten to the point where I thought we needed
some counseling. The only thing is, we didn't have the money for that."

On that August day, their chances of staying together didn't look good. They
had only been dating a couple of months before Stephanie got pregnant.

Mohamed was a 29-year-old Muslim from Guyana who wore baggy jeans and a
diamond stud earring; he liked the idea of marriage, but a few months before
his daughter's birth, he was still spending half his paycheck on designer
clothes and bottles of Hennessy in nightclub V.I.P. rooms.

Stephanie was 21, a churchgoing Puerto Rican with a habit of listing her
goals for self-improvement on sheets of notebook paper. Her family took a
dim view of marriage; her mother had raised her alone, after splitting with
the man Stephanie called "my sperm donor."

"She basically taught me the rules of life: If you don't do it for yourself,
nobody else is going to do it for you. Don't depend on anybody. Don't trust

Now, the federal government is trying to instill a different lesson: that
two parents can be better than one; that a woman can depend on the father of
her child; that marriage can work. In October, the U.S. Department of Health
and Human Services announced it will spend $150-million a year through 2011
on marriage promotion and responsible fatherhood programs, including
$33-million in Florida.

A national crisis

For Stephanie, who enrolled in a marriage-education pilot program with
Mohamed shortly after their daughter was born, relationship classes aren't
just about getting married; they're about finding a government-funded route
out of poverty. Along with work and school, marriage seems to offer a shot
at transformation, from what Stephanie calls "a statistic" to a stable,
middle-class family.

"I don't ask for a lot of luxury or expensive things," she said, "Just so I
can live comfortably and not have to worry, 'Is this bill going to be paid?'
Just simple things like that."

A decade ago, welfare reform became the first federal legislation to make
marriage an explicit policy goal. Calling the rising number of unwed
pregnancies and births a "crisis in our nation," its authors revamped
welfare to focus on "promoting job preparation, work and marriage."

Since then, the government's marriage initiative has gone from a hot-button
political issue to that rare social policy on which liberal academics and
Bush administration officials can agree. Families with two incomes are less
likely to be poor, and studies show married people earn and save more.

Research also suggests marriage is good for children. Studies show children
born to unmarried parents have more behavioral problems, higher rates of
teen pregnancy and delinquency, lower educational attainment and more
problems finding and keeping jobs.

"Marriage by itself is not an antipoverty program, but marriage is not
irrelevant to poverty," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and
families at the Department of Health and Human Services, who has been
driving federal marriage policy since 2001.

Dangerous unions?

Some antipoverty advocates say marriage education shifts government funds
from reducing poverty to promoting family values. Some domestic violence
experts say it risks forcing poor women into dangerous unions.

But officials say the programs are voluntary and promote "healthy
marriages." Many who once opposed the policy now support it.

"We all laughed and said, 'Oh God, they're going to tell everybody they
should be married,' " said Pat Gerard, chief operating officer of Family
Resources Inc. in Pinellas Park, which will receive more than $5-million in
marriage-education funding over the next five years, the largest federal
grant in the state.

"Five years ago, I probably wouldn't have applied for it, the way it was
coming out and the politics behind it. But I can certainly see how there's a
lot of advantages to having these services and de-stigmatizing them."

The pilot program that Stephanie and Mohamed joined is part of a federally
funded research project teaching relationship skills to low-income couples
in Florida and a handful of other states since 2005. In Orlando and Fort
Lauderdale, it is run by Healthy Families Florida, a state-funded child
abuse prevention program.

Couples who are unmarried and have a child together or married since their
child's conception attend group relationship classes, working through
modules with titles like "Two Sides to Every Fight" and "When Endless Fights
Turn Harmful."

Financial incentives

They get intensive help finding jobs and solving money problems because
strained finances are a key cause of fights. The program put $500 toward
Stephanie and Mohamed's apartment, they said, and gave them gift cards for
Best Buy and Bath & Body Works to reward their attendance.

"It's actually like they're paying us to go to it," Mohamed said. "But if
they said, 'You have to pay for the program,' I think I would, because the
benefits that we get from the program, for us as a couple, it's well worth

But the program is working against long odds. Bobbie-Jo Spada and Kevin
Sayre recently completed three and a half months of relationship classes in
Orlando. A certificate hangs on the wall of their modest concrete block
house, but after three and a half years as a couple and two children
together they don't seem any closer to marriage.

"He thinks it will ruin the relationship," said Bobbie-Jo, 24. "We don't
even discuss it anymore."

Compared to other struggling couples, their stability is heartening. Kevin,
28, owns his house and has a steady job as a heating and air conditioning
mechanic. Bobbie-Jo dropped out of high school at 15, but now spends her
days patiently doling out potato sticks and toys to her son, daughter and

In marriage, though, they have no obvious role models. Bobbie-Jo's parents
fought violently, she said. Kevin's mother left his father when Kevin was
six months old; his stepfather committed suicide.

Bobbie-Jo is still hopeful. On a recent afternoon, she acknowledged she
would be lost without Kevin. But she wants a mark of their commitment.

"I don't want to be a girlfriend for the rest of my life," she said. "The
way I look at it is, I've already had two of your kids. I've been here for
three years. I'm not going anywhere. I think a marriage proposal would be

Closer to the altar

Stephanie and Mohamed seem closer to marriage, but they aren't there yet.

Mohamed dropped out of high school, got his GED and makes $14.50 an hour as
a cable tech. He somehow manages monthly payments on a sleek silver Jaguar,
yet is so frustrated by money problems that he said he sometimes feels like
putting his fist through the wall.

Stephanie makes $13.42 an hour as a surgical tech at a local hospital; she
plans to start nursing school in the spring. When she got bored in high
school, she would list her goals, a tribute to a mother who "always told me
you can do anything you want to do," she said. Having a baby out of wedlock
wasn't on the list. Neither was getting married at 22.

"I questioned myself a lot about, 'Do I need to be with him,' " Stephanie
said. "My mom raised me as a single parent. Why do I need him?"

It was Mohamed who pushed to stay together, despite their fights.

"I don't want to be the guy who has a kid with one person and another kid
with another person," he said. "Now that I have a kid, this is the person I
want to spend my life with."

A public misstep

On a recent afternoon, their home visitor, a motherly 44-year-old named Ada
Miranda, advised them about when to feed cereal to their 4-month-old
daughter, Brianna Ashley, and how to treat her eczema. Ada admired pictures
from the previous Saturday, when Stephanie and Mohamed had skipped
relationship class to go to a friend's wedding.

"Ooh, you look gorgeous in that picture!" Ada said, gazing at Mohamed in a
dark suit and Stephanie in a white and gold dress. "You guys look like you
could get married."

No one said anything.

"So the wedding was good for you guys?" Ada asked.

"It was good to a point," Mohamed said. "I did something wrong. I don't
really want to talk about it."

The wedding had upset him. He and Stephanie were deadlocked over what kind
of ceremony to have since she was Christian and he Muslim. He watched his
friend's marriage wistfully, wishing for one of his own.

At the reception afterward, things got worse. When it came time for
Stephanie to drive them home, he yelled and banged on the dashboard. She got

"To me it was like a bad ghost came along," she said.

The next morning, Mohamed drove to Target and bought Pampers. He stopped at
Starbucks to pick up a caramel macchiato for Stephanie. He knocked on his
own front door like a stranger.

Stephanie could tell he was trying to make up. She thought about the lessons
they had learned in the group, especially the "gentle startup," a technique
to keep difficult conversations from spinning into fights.

What do you have to say for yourself? she asked.

They talked for an hour. At one point, he got angry, but he realized he was
wrong and calmed down. He started the conversation again, "gently, without
any yelling or anything," he said, "and we resolved it without any yelling
or anything."

They didn't discuss the fight with Ada, and she didn't press them. Instead,
she turned to Brianna.

"Look at how comfortable she is with you guys," Ada said. "Can you imagine
yourselves without her right now?"

"It would be kind of boring," Stephanie said.

"Life wouldn't be life without her," Mohamed said, drawing Brianna close.
"The day she was born, that's when my life started."

By the time Saturday rolled around, the fight seemed to have faded. Before
relationship class, Mohamed vacuumed the apartment and laid out frilly pink
baby clothes for Brianna. Stephanie bathed her and taped on a fresh diaper.

On the kitchen counter lay a list of goals Stephanie hoped to accomplish in
the new year.

1) Start school by May

2) Save money at least $1000 by end of the year

3) Plan wedding for Sept. 2007


Mohamed surprised Stephanie with a diamond ring on New Year's Eve.

They plan to marry Sept. 15 on a cruise ship, in a ceremony they can agree

For photos and the article:


The secular version of a Christian program to save marriages will get
millions in federal grants.

St Petersburg Times
January 8, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Richard Albertson became an evangelist for marriage not long
after his own nearly failed.

Since 1998, he has worked with Tallahassee churches to provide hundreds of
couples with relationship courses inspired by the Bible. His mission is to
save the institution of marriage, one struggling union at a time.

Now, the federal government, armed with statistics showing strong marriages
make healthier and wealthier families, wants to spend $750-million over the
next five years, including $33-million on 13 Florida programs, to reverse
the trend of one-parent households.

Albertson's Live the Life Ministries, one of three Christian-based grant
recipients in Florida, will get $2.75-million of that money over the next
five years.

The windfall will nearly double the size of Live the Life, allowing the
program to expand its reach in the Big Bend region and spark what Albertson
refers to as a "marriage renaissance." He wants to reduce the overall
divorce rate in the eight Big Bend counties by 35 percent and increase the
marriage rate by 15 percent.

But accepting funding from the federal government is not without challenges.

How effective will a Christian program be at promoting marriage in the
secular world? And how will the restrictions of government money change what
has been a small success story in the faith-based community?

Live the Life's board of directors debated these questions before deciding
to apply for the money, Albertson said.

"If our mission was to evangelize and lead people to Christ, I'd say we
shouldn't take it," Albertson said. "But this isn't about making

A foot in secular world

One recent Saturday morning, Albertson was standing in front of an overhead
projector. This was the second session of a privately funded,
Christian-based relationship skills course for married couples.

In attendance were three middle-age couples with backgrounds as different as
truck driver and lawyer. What they had in common was that their marriages,
all of them at least a decade old, could use some work.

Click. The session started with a passage from the Gospel of John,
concerning the notion of an abundant life.

"I know a lot of Christians who are miserable," Albertson said. "They don't
have an abundant life.

"Where is the abundant life?"

Click. Second slide, this one of a time line marked past, present and
future. Those who live in the past ruin their relationships with anger and
resentment, he said; those who worry over the future ruin theirs with
anxiety and fear.

"The fruit of the spirit," he said, "is in the present."

The class took place not in a church hall, but in the carpeted conference
room of a Tallahassee office building. Albertson, who is not a minister, has
long had one foot in the secular realm.

He raised money for Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984. He served
as an appointee in the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the
administration of former President George Bush, and as past chairman of a
Florida commission on marriage. He got former Gov. Jeb Bush to endorse a
pledge among Tallahassee religious leaders to help reduce the divorce rate.

In the religious community, he has earned a reputation as someone who moves
easily between both worlds. Live the Life Ministries is often cited as one
of the best-run faith-based marriage programs in the country.

New language needed

But Albertson is confident he can create an equally successful secular

To prevent mingling of federal and private funds, he hired a former Boys &
Girls Club executive to oversee the operation of Live the Life's secular

And he has tweaked the content, particularly the language.

When training sessions for the secular programs begin later this month, the
curriculum will discuss the concept of commitment in relationships, for
instance, but not compare the world's idea of a contract "My way or the
highway," as Albertson recently put it with the biblical view of "God's

The secular classes will say forgiveness benefits your personal well-being.
The faith-based courses will still encourage couples to forgive each other
by emphasizing Jesus' forgiveness.

Some have doubts about how well this will work. Religious organizations that
take federal money may run the risk of losing the very elements that make
them effective for some people, said University of Virginia professor Brad
Wilcox, who has studied the connections between religion and marriage.

When the language becomes more therapeutic than spiritual, he said, it may
lose its connection with people who respond based on their faith.

"Religion has a transcendent purpose," he said. "It's 'God is sanctifying
our relationship.' "

In Oklahoma, site of the nation's most ambitious public-private marriage
initiative, church leaders have worked hand in hand with government
officials since 1999.

The Rev. George Young, pastor of Holy Temple Baptist Church in Oklahoma
City, has taught dozens of secular marriage skills courses to low-income men
and women and was an adviser to the governor's office.

Though he believes marriage was "created by God to bring us from chaos to
community," he is more motivational speaker than minister when it comes to
the classes. Some people do better, he said, when the classes feel like
practical workshops and not Sunday school lessons.

"I pray before the workshops. But once that's over, I'm going to give you
some tools," Young said. "I don't say a thing about Jesus. I got a church so
if I want to preach, I can do it there."

At the Saturday marriage class, Albertson was talking about conflict. "Jesus
had conflicts with his disciples," he said.

"Yes, he did," one of the wives said.

"Remember James talking about the fire of the tongue, how the words we use
fighting can be soothing or they can be destructive?" he asked. "How you
fight tells you a lot about yourself."

He continued with instructions to calmly "make a list of the dirty fighting
tactics you use and the ones your partner uses."

One of the wives, Bridget Harrison, took less than a minute to list a dozen
of her worst habits. Her husband of 13 years, Steve, kept staring sleepily
at his pencil.

She sighed. "I don't know if it's too late," she said during a break. "This
is our last resort. We tried counseling. We had heard a lot of therapists,
but what I like about (Albertson) was it's real basic, common sense."

Success without God?

Harrison wasn't sure how well the classes would work without the biblical
references. It was her faith, after all, that drew her to class in the first
place. "I'd die without God," she said.

But it's not just people like Harrison whom Live the Life needs to reach

Last summer, anticipating the need to appeal to a wider audience, Live the
Life hired a consultant. The consultant recommended simplifying the mission
statement, which had called divorce and out-of-wedlock births "the
devastating consequences of a generation disconnected from their God and
from one another" and cited Jesus Christ as the answer.

The new version is simpler: Live the Life "exists to strengthen marriages
and families."

"The truth is the truth," Albertson said, "whether you use Scriptures or

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