Free To Grow: Head Start Partnerships to Promote Substance-Free Communities

Field of Work: Strengthening families and neighborhood environments in high-risk, low-income communities

Problem Synopsis: In the early 1990s, there was a growing consensus among researchers that substance abuse can have roots in early childhood. Yet studies pointed to certain factors that can moderate these risks, even for children growing up in adverse conditions: improved family functioning; a positive relationship with a caring adult outside the family; clear standards against substance abuse in the family; and willingness to seek treatment for family members who are abusing drugs.

Synopsis of the Work: Free To Grow—a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)—from 1992 to 2005 supported efforts by Head Start agencies and their community partners to strengthen the families and neighborhood environments of high-risk preschool children living in low-income communities. The goal was to reduce the children's vulnerability to substance abuse and related problems in later life. The Head Start agencies partnered with local police departments, school systems and other organizations to implement an integrated mix of family and neighborhood strategies to address substance abuse, child abuse and other risky behaviors.

Key Results

  • The following were among the results of Free To Grow reported to RWJF by the national program office in December 2005:

    • Free To Grow enhanced the organizational capacity of participating Head Start agencies to identify and assist vulnerable families, especially those with substance abuse and mental health problems.
    • Free To Grow demonstrated that Head Start agencies are capable of building diverse partnerships to strengthen families and communities.
    • The participating Head Start agencies expanded the reach of their interventions to include other vulnerable families residing in the same neighborhoods whose children were not enrolled in the Head Start educational program.
    • Free To Grow developed models of family- and community-focused prevention intervention that could be disseminated more broadly to other Head Start agencies within Head Start and the larger early childhood community.

Evaluation Findings

Researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine conducted an independent evaluation, tracking changes in family and community risk and protective factors at 14 demonstration sites and 14 matched communities selected for comparison. (The national program office staff disagreed with some findings, contending the evaluation failed to fully identify the program's impact on families and communities.) Findings included:

  • There was no consistent evidence of change in family functioning or neighborhood conditions when the 14 Free To Grow sites were compared to the 14 matched sites at the three-year follow-up.
  • Analyses that controlled for the risk status of parents/caregivers in the Free To Grow and comparison communities also produced little evidence of impact at the three-year follow-up.

In the final 2009 report, the evaluation team concluded: "The results provide limited support for the concept that family and neighborhood conditions that are likely to affect child development and well-being can be attained through organized change efforts implemented by local Head Start programs."