During the late 1980s, Maryland was experiencing spiraling rates of adolescent pregnancy, low birth weight babies, incidents of child abuse and neglect, and foster care placements. In addition, the state politics became polarized by an increasingly bitter and escalating abortion debate. In the midst of these unfavorable trends, a widely held perception that government was failing families in Maryland developed. There were no existing preventative programs in Maryland at the time, and the emergency support services were inadequate. The situation in Baltimore was especially dire and it became clear that a policy innovation capable of transcending the ideological division of the abortion debate was necessary.
Friends of the Family, Inc. (FOF) was introduced by a coalition of state government officials, public services providers, and concerned private sector actors. The consensus among this diverse group of stakeholders was that the pressures of poverty were destroying the potential for healthy families. Together, this partnership set out to improve the chances for healthy child development by addressing the needs of low-income parents, and supporting their efforts to provide for their children.
Friends of the Family's primary responsibility is the development of community-based family support programs. FOF provides staff training, technical support, and program administration to centers across the state. Since its creation in 1989, FOF has helped created nine new community programs focused on the challenges facing young, low-income parents. These agencies, diverse in their approaches and dispersed across urban communities, work intensively with low-income Baltimore City families during the first five years of their child's life. The goal of these programs is unanimous: to help families break the cycle of poverty and ensure that their children develop optimally.
FOF's 13 family support centers provide various services to local families including drop-in child-parent activities, GED classes, single parent support groups, health clinics, meals as well as child development assessments and screenings. Counselors also make referrals to other human services that may not be available on site such as drug treatment or public assistance. These community programs serve about 600 to 900 families a month. FOF focuses on supporting these 13 agencies as well as providing educational training for human service workers and policy development away from the current crisis response orientation to one of prevention.
According to outside evaluators, both Republicans and Democrats, child advocates and community sponsors, pro- and anti-choice groups seem to agree that the coordination and support provided FOF is invaluable to low-income families in Maryland. It offers common ground for those on opposing sides of the political spectrum and provides a positive vehicle for government participation community social programs. Importantly, this program has successfully combined the resources, and expertise of both the private and public sectors.FOF's critical innovations lie in its commitment to uniting state agencies and political advocates under a common vision of family support, and its demonstrated ability to deliver these services to young, low-income families around the state.