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Ohio reaches out to fathers in fight against infant mortality

Daniel Kington
November 8, 2016

Problems of financial insecurity in families and infant mortality are complex and without a solitary solution. However, Ohio University and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs hope to help address an often-overlooked piece of the puzzle—the role of the father—by evaluating an initiative that focuses on the contribution of fathers to their family’s economic stability and well-being.

The Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative is a federal program funded from 2015 to 2020 that specifically targets fathers between the ages of 16 to 24. The initiative aims to increase the financial stability of participating families and strengthen the relationships between fathers and their children, as well as between the fathers and mothers.

In Ohio, the program is active in the Springfield and Dayton area, Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland. The state of Ohio has adapted the project to fit its particular needs, and is consequently making reducing infant mortality a central goal of the initiative. Ohio has one of the highest rates of infant mortality in the country. According to data released last year, the state’s rate of 7.33 deaths per 1,000 live births is 21 percent above the national average. Reflecting a national pattern, the situation is even worse for Black families, for whom infant mortality rates are double that of white families.

While national implementation of the initiative will be evaluated by Mathematica Policy Research, Ohio University will specifically evaluate the program’s implementation in Ohio, focusing particularly on the state’s specific goals.

Leading Ohio University’s evaluation and consulting team are Voinovich School research associate Daniel Kloepfer and Associate Professor Lesli Johnson. The pair will be working in close collaboration with Solveig Spjeldnes, an assistant professor in the College of Health Sciences and Professions.

Focusing on fathers is a somewhat unusual approach to reducing infant mortality, Kloepfer said. “There are not as many programs for fathers as there are for mothers, so this is an attempt to reach a different population and teach participants how to become healthy and supportive fathers and partners,” he said.

The program will train fathers in parenting techniques relevant to both before and after the birth of a child. Before pregnancy, fathers are encouraged to support mothers in leading low-stress lifestyles, eating well, and not consuming alcohol and drugs. After the birth, fathers are encouraged to engage in good parenting practices themselves, such as resting infants on their backs and supporting mothers in good habits such as breastfeeding.

Johnson stressed that this is just one way in which both the state and the Voinovich School are attempting to address infant mortality and children’s well-being, noting that “this is one of a suite of projects that we’ve done over 20 years here at the School” focusing on these issues.

Ohio University’s evaluation services will ideally help to improve the program over the course of its five years of funding, Johnson said.

“We’re going to give the programs quarterly information about how they are doing with recruitment, with retention and with training,” she said. “We’ll also give the programs feedback a couple times a year about what kinds of success they are seeing or not seeing related to infant mortality and financial literacy. We’ll then be at the table as they’re thinking of strategies for how to improve in these areas.”

Currently, the Ohio University evaluation team is preparing to get more involved in the project and begin a series of site visits to the programs. Kloepfer said he’s excited to get under way.

“Any time you can work on a project in which one of the underlying goals is to reduce infant mortality, that’s pretty admirable,” Kloepfer said. “It’s a problem that needs to be addressed in this state. The information we get from this project will give us specific ideas on how to reach fathers and increase our knowledge on infant mortality in general.”

Kloepfer noted that the project will expand the Voinovich School’s reach. “It’s great that we get to go to the larger cities in Ohio,” he said. “We do a lot of projects in Appalachia, and I think this will be good to expand and take a broader view.”