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Lessons from the Field: The Synergistic Effect

By Eugene Hall, Graduate Research Assistant

Hennepin County Judge Bruce Peterson used the word “synergy” to describe what was happening during last week’s Lessons from the Field seminar, titled “Children in Common: Ensuring the Emotional Well-Being of Children When Parenting Apart.” The event was held “live” in Minneapolis and by video stream for clinicians, researchers, parents, and other interested people throughout Minnesota and the nation.

Judge Peterson shared the stage in a panel discussion with Maisha Giles and Rose McCullough, former Co-Parent Court navigators. The three panelists discussed Co-Parent Court, a model for integrating comprehensive parenting services with establishment of paternity, and its major impact on never-married parents who are separating and their children. Judge Peterson also used the word “synergy” to describe part of the reason the program pilots in 2010 and 2013 in the Hennepin County Court system were so successful: The courts worked directly with family therapists, social workers, and educators to create a model that would help families in Hennepin County. (For more on Co-Parent Court’s outcomes, see Panel Presentation.)

Before the panel, Kathryn Edin, Ph.D., and James McHale, Ph.D., took the stage to present their research on never married parents. Edin, a sociologist and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently released her book on never married fathers, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City. She deconstructed the dominant narrative about unwed fathers and explored the factors that impact fathers continued involvement with their children, such as frequent breakup, highly contentious co-parenting relationships, and new competing obligations. (See Edin’s slides: Kathryn Edin Presentation.)

Next, McHale, director of the Family Study Center at the University of South Florida, reminded the audience that a co-parent unit contains three people — two parents and a child — and thus should be studied as a system. (See his slides: James McHale Presentation.) Although Edin and McHale did not create their studies together, the research they presented and the stories they told flowed seamlessly from between them. Each of these researchers looks at never-married parents in ways that complement each other and advance the field.

In my opinion, the greatest moment of synergy came during a final question-and-answer session. Participants in the room and those watching via video stream asked questions about the presenters’ work and the future of the field. Many times, Edin, McHale, and the panelists all answered the questions, each giving a unique and important perspective. In my view, researchers, educators, clinicians, court justices, and law makers often seem to work at odds with one another in trying to accomplish their goals. But these presenters highlighted the similarity among their goals.

The synergy of the kind that Edin and McHale demonstrated will continue to advance the field as fast as families are changing. However, this alone will not be enough. As Rose McCollough so eloquently reminded all of us, in order to do this work, we need to go above and beyond for each family in whatever way we can. Without that drive behind our work, we will not be able to help each other reach our goals.

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