Free to Grow (FTG) was a national initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others to implement evidence-based family-strengthening and community-strengthening strategies in 14 Head Start (HS) programs. The FTG model emphasized strengthening the family and community context that children live in to enhance protective factors that buffer against substance abuse, child abuse and neglect and other risk behaviors as children grow.
This article describes the independent evaluation conducted by a team based at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. They compared the 14 FTG sites with 14 matched HS agencies and communities without the program. They administered telephone surveys to children’s primary caregivers annually for three years. Since the FTG sites had implemented the model to different degrees, the researchers divided the 28 sites into three treatment groups: high-implementing FTG, low-implementing FTG and the comparison sites. They used the following constructs:
- Seven neighborhood measures, including neighborhood involvement and school involvement;
- Six family strengthening measures, such as family conflict and discipline;
- Four family substance use measures of family drinking norms.
No consistent evidence was found of changes in family functioning or neighborhood conditions when the 14 FTG sites were compared to 14 matched sites. However, caregivers of young children who were not in HS in three high implementing FTG sites showed evidence of improvements in neighborhood organization, neighborhood norms against substance abuse, child disciplinary practices, and family conflict.