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Monica Foster of The Skanner
Published: 26 March 2008

The African American Healthy Marriage Initiative held a "Strengthening the Family Summit" Tuesday to talk about what makes a healthy marriage, how to be a good father, and how to raise happy, confident children. These are not exactly the simple little problems of life, so what lay behind the event?
"We wanted to start to have a national public conversation about healthy relationships and marriage within the Black community," said Diann Dawson, Director of Regional Operations for U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services.
"We felt a need to have an initiative where we could begin to have conversations about the sensitive issues that we need to deal with and that we wanted to make sure that marriage education, as it was beginning to unveil on the federal level ... would be culturally competent," she said. "… people started realizing that we need to look at this in our own cultural context."  
In 2002 Dawson founded and led the effort to develop the Federal healthy marriage initiative. She wanted to look at issues such as the impact of incarceration on families and children, health related issues, depression in women, responsible fatherhood and how marriage affects African American families. She wanted to understand the challenges families face. She wanted to know what a world would look like that was designed to support Black families.
"We have been a catalyst to get more African American researchers to look at African American couples in the African American communities instead of middle-class White families and have elevated this issue in terms of looking at it in the context of health disparities." 
Held at South Seattle Community College in West Seattle, the summit aimed to send people back to their communities with ideas and tools to share.
Expert speakers included, Ron Mincy, a professor of social policy and social work at Columbia University, who is an expert on fathers, children and family wellbeing; Charles Lee-Johnson, CEO of the National Family Life and Education Center and George R. Williams, executive director of the National Center for Fathering's Urban Father-Child Partnership.
Williams told the audience that 33 percent of children are growing up without their biological father and 8 million fathers are not present in their children's lives.
"Father absence is a form of child abuse," Williams said. "Men need help being the fathers their children need. We need men to teach boys how to be men and walk over that bridge into manhood."
Between 1960 and 1995, the number of African American children living with two married parents dropped from 75 percent to 33 percent.
Moreover, the latest figures show that 69 percent of African American babies are born to single mothers. That's compared to just 33 percent for the country as a whole.
Studies have found that children in two-parent households are less likely to show behavior problems. They are less likely to use drugs, alcohol or tobacco. They are less likely to be abused or neglected. Boys who have two parents are half as likely to be jailed for a crime.
Johnson said children born outside marriage or with absent fathers lack role models for healthy marriages. "How does a boy become a husband if he's never seen a healthy marriage?," Johnson said.
Studies show that 35 percent of Americans between age 24 and 34 have never been married. But  that percentage increases to 54 percent for African Americans in the same group. Married couples account for 76 percent of American families but just 47.9 percent of African American families.
For more information on the African American Healthy Marriage Initiative visit www.acf.hhs.gov.

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