In Brief ■ Rural families—and especially rural immigrant families—face many risks. ■ Group events connected with programs for rural families can help lower risks connected with isolation and limited community resources. ■ Group events planned and led by target families can increase cultural appropriateness and help families meet their needs as they become catalysts for change.
Families in rural communities often encounter adverse issues such as isolation and scarcity of employment opportunities not experienced by families located in or near cities. To compound the problems, rural communities often have limited community resources to provide assistance for the families facing struggles. Ungar (2011) described one characteristic of stronger communities as having formal and informal resource systems in place, and that a community’s ability to overcome adverse issues depends on these resource systems. This article describes how some families in southern New Mexico have been catalysts by creating their own resource system to support themselves and their young children.
Family Challenges in Rural Settings
The isolation associated with living in rural communities can have detrimental effects on families with children when compared with urban areas. Some of these detrimental effects include increased poverty; fewer jobs; lower education levels; and physical and mental health challenges leading to obesity, substance abuse, and even suicide (Bender, Fedor, & Carlson, 2011; Stone & Meyler, 2006). Fortunately, it has been established that families in rural communities often lessen the impact of these stressors through participation in community group events (Parents As Teachers [PAT], 2015).
So families in rural areas are at risk due to multiple challenges. Immigrant families experience even higher incidences of risk as a result of acculturation challenges such as discrimination, language barriers, and lack of extended family support systems (Stone & Meyer, 2006). Isolation, especially in immigrant communities, can cause detrimental, long-lasting effects for children and families (PAT, 2015). The risks for immigrants accentuate the common risk for lower educational attainment, increased poverty levels, lower literacy skills, and lower cognitive and mental development that already exist in many rural communities.
Recently, rural southern New Mexico has been hit hard with oil-field layoffs, which were accompanied by an increase in stressed families, substance abuse, and increased reports of child abuse and domestic violence. I am the program manager of our state-funded home visiting program. I recently observed that monthly data pulled from the home-visiting database, which documents the home visitors’ case notes, referrals, and family demographics, showed an increase of family referrals for mental health services, domestic violence services, and early childhood early intervention services, which was parallel to the onset of the oil-field layoffs. Over a 4-month period these referrals increased by 40%, with an increase also shown in the severity of the risk scores (Children, Youth, and Families Department [CYFD], 2017). Many of these same families are also being affected by the increased scrutiny on immigrants and undocumented families.
The participants in a home-visiting program in the southern New Mexico area described previously were offered group events designed to lessen these effects of rural isolation, and these families have used that opportunity to do even more: They have built their own community to support each other. The home-visiting program in which the families participated planned monthly group events to create opportunities for families to communicate, share, and learn about topics of interest and support. But the families did not stop with the planned programming. They used the group events as a springboard and took them even further; with initial guidance from the home visitors the families soon planned the entire events themselves and formed them into something they needed.
Even though these families were facing remarkable challenges, they have pulled together to plan group events with food and activities consistent with their cultural background. Through a collaborative effort they organized potluck meals for the entire group, sharing their traditional family recipes from Mexico. They also planned activities together, such as paper-flower making, cookie swaps, and even songs, music, and dances. While preserving their own cultural traditions, which strengthen family and community resilience during stressful situations (Ungar, 2011), this group of families also shared their experiences of adjusting to new cultural expectations in the United States. They were learning how to navigate U.S. documentation systems as well as education systems and assistance programs. In their efforts to create better lives for themselves and their young children, they actively sought the encouragement of the home-visiting programs and ultimately thrived through program and community education and supports (Ungar, 2011). Case notes captured in the home-visiting database and reflective conversations held with the home visitors documented family participation in group events. Further investigation of data showed a direct correlation among group participation, engagement in regularly scheduled home visits, and length of time in the program (CYFD, 2017a). Improvements in social skills, school readiness skills, and strengthened family interactions were measured through early childhood developmental screening tools such as the ASQ-SE, ASQ, and PICCOLO (Parenting Interactions With Children: Checklist of Observations Linked to Outcomes) PAT, 2015).
Typically, the immigrant communities are characterized by experiencing distrust, fear, and seclusion (PAT, 2015). The fact that these families were able to take the lead and organize their own programs allowed them to use the collaborative group process in ways that supported their desire to better their lives for themselves and the lives of their children in this new home. Attending regular group events is a protective factor for families in high-needs situations (PAT, 2015). Family group events in rural areas of New Mexico are recommended for providing social outlets to protect families from isolation. Immigrant families, especially these Latino families, exhibit some other strong cultural protective factors. Probably the most important strength they bring to their communities is their strong sense of family values (Stone & Meyler, 2006). Equally important is their strong sense of cultural belonging. These two protective factors, especially when supported by group collaborations, can result in higher self- esteem, stronger resilience, less substance abuse, increased mental health, and decreased behavior problems (Bender et al., 2011; Ungar, 2011; Stone & Meyler, 2006).
These rural immigrant families have bonded through the home-visiting program group events. Their collaborations with each other, their planning skills, their inclusion of traditional cultural practices, and their child development information-sharing provide documentation that resiliency and self-efficacy skills developed (PAT, 2015). Ginsberg, in PAT (2015), described his seven Cs model of resilience that was originally focused on children but also applies to adults: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control. By planning their own group events, these home-visiting families empowered themselves and promoted their own protective factors to benefit themselves and their children. Their planned events promoted family and child well-being through decreasing isolation risks and providing opportunities for improving child social skills. Providing opportunities for caregivers and young children to interact results in increased attachment skills and improved self-regulation skills (Bender et al., 2011). The mothers discussed parenting and childbirth, and this had the potential to improve live- birth outcomes and prenatal care (PAT, 2015). Additional benefits of these group events for rural immigrants could be promoting bilingual language learners, increasing chances of breastfeeding, and lowering tobacco and alcohol use during pregnancy.
New Mexico statistics show that in the past eight years, since the inception of rural home-visiting programs, child abuse cases have fallen by 50% (Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 2017). Also in the past eight years, the children that progressed through the home-visiting programs have shown a decrease in adolescent crimes and substance abuse. By planning fun, traditional group activities, these families may have strengthened their own community support systems, preventing possible child abuse and maltreatment in their community, and improving opportunities for their children’s social, mental, and cognitive development. Data gathered in the statewide home- visiting database measures relationships between children and caregivers. CYFD (2017) showed that “nurturing, responsive relationships between a child and a small group of consistent caregivers foster attachments, support brain development, and promote social and emotional development”(p. 18) through the increase of yearly PICCOLO scores, which have shown improvement in 85% of family relationships.
Implications for Family Professionals
Although the data reflect positive outcomes for child–caregiver relationship interactions, New Mexico home visitors express concern regarding the cultural relevance of some of the screening tools. On the basis of the reports of this home-visiting program, families taking the lead in planning group events could strengthen family well-being through facilitating the sharing of common experiences while increasing cultural appropriateness. Because of the many diverse cultures in the state, giving families a larger role in programming decisions and program leadership can allow for families to serve as catalysts. As family professionals, we can work to increase the empirical documentation of such programs and also refine and distribute descriptions of the process followed in successful collaborations like these.
Bender, S., Fedor, M., & Carlson, J. (2011). Examining protective factors and risk factors in urban and rural Head Start preschoolers. Journal of Community Psychology, 39(8), 908–921.
Children, Youth, and Families Department. (2017). New Mexico home visiting annual outcomes report fiscal year 2016. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico. Retrieved from https://cyfd. org/docs/FINAL_FY16_CEPR_HV_ Report_12_22_16.pdf
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. (2017). Preventing crime through voluntary home visiting. Washington, DC: Council for a Strong America.
Parents as Teachers. (2015). Parents as teachers foundational curriculum. St. Louis, MO: Parents as Teachers National Center.
Ungar, M. (2011). Community resilience for youth and families: Facilitative physical and social capital in context of adversity. Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 1742–1748.
Stone, R., & Meyler, D. (2007). Identifying potential risk and protective factors among non-metropolitan Latino youth: Cultural implications for substance use research. Journal of Immigrant Health, 9, 95–107. doi:10.1007/s10903-006-9019-5