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Scholar Spotlight: Marsha Pruett’s Innovative Research on Family Dynamics

Marsha Pruett

Dr. Marsha Pruett is a scholar who is constantly on the move. As the lone CRF Family Research Scholar in 2014-15 who does not hail from UMass Amherst, she is nonetheless a fixture on the UMass campus—making the regular commute from her office at Smith College in Northampton for meetings, forums and engagement opportunities with her CRF colleagues. She also travels extensively around the world to deliver lectures about her innovative research on the intersection of social work, family law, parenting and psychology.

When she finally slows down long enough to sit down at the CRF offices to discuss her current projects, Dr. Pruett gets right down to business. For starters, she is currently collaborating with CRF Director, Professor Maureen Perry-Jenkins, on a program called Supporting Father Involvement (SFI):

“We’re hoping to build on a ten-year intervention study that was started in California, which is now being replicated in Canada and in Great Britain, and results so far are positive. We’re creating an intervention in a group setting, primarily with low-income families of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. We’ve found that a group environment—something more than psycho-education but less than therapy—results in a positive change for both the family and the broader community.” This type of group approach allows families to grow closer together, strengthening bonds by improving their ability to communicate with and care for each other.  Drs. Pruett and Perry-Jenkins hope to modify this program to be effective for low-income parents across the transition to parenthood.

According to Dr. Pruett, the research findings indicate that the couple-based intervention has been transformational for families of various configurations. She explains, “We’re teaching families that co-parenting is a powerful way of raising a child. Whether or not you’re married, whether you’re intimate together, whether you’re a grandmother and a mother raising a child, we know that the kinds of protective factors that come from co-parenting can be leveraged for the benefit of children.”

In support of these claims, Dr. Pruett and her team have collected data using both randomized control trials (RCTs) and quasi-experimental designs. The original data, collected from over 600 low income, racially diverse families, show a decrease in parents’ depression and anxiety, parenting stress, harsh parenting and violent problem solving, along with increases in father involvement, perceptions of shared family workload as balanced, and no increases in child behavior problems compared to a control or comparison group. All of these outcomes are a result of the intervention program.

The new Canadian data also include qualitative follow-up interviews in which parents articulated what had helped and supported them most, including increasing empathy and attunement between couples. Dr. Pruett emphasizes that, “Our project brings people not only into a group community but into a family resource center where they stay connected.” The goal is to “reduce the kind of isolation that results in child abuse, in separation, and in the kind of depression and mental health problems that people have when they’re overwhelmed without sufficient social support.” So far, the results show that the project is a tremendous success.

Dr. Pruett spends much of her time translating her research to practitioners and policymakers with the ultimate aim of enhancing family well-being. To that end, her work has gained her an international reputation. Her intervention project with low-income families is only one of several ongoing projects that address pressing problems facing modern families. These efforts speak to her deep investment in working with parents and families on the cusp of major life changes.

In another research endeavor, Dr. Pruett is working to provide support for divorcing families. “I consulted to and am evaluating the only resource center for separating and divorcing families in the United States that operates outside of the legal system,” she begins. The Center for Separating and Divorcing Families (RCSDF), located at the University of Denver, represents a groundbreaking shift in practice. “Taking the entire process out of the legal system is something that we’ve talked about for many years,” she says. This approach enables practitioners to focus on helping families through what is essentially “a psychological and an economic change” in addition to a legal one. An innovation of this program is that graduate students from psychology, social work, and law interact directly with family clients. “If [families] need other kinds of support, we can refer them to students” in different fields, Dr. Pruett says. The model will soon be piloted in additional states.

Much of Dr. Pruett’s recent work has focused on examining Scholar-Advocacy Bias, when researchers conduct empirical studies and offer commentary about research that has huge public policy implications. The work has led her to become increasingly bold about speaking out for standards in the field to guide social scientists and practitioners from mental health and legal disciplines.

Dr. Pruett continues to publish papers that address some of the repercussions of parental separation and divorce, as well as the role of parents in a child’s life when the parents live separately and are in conflict. Her work focuses on allowing children to “foster a healthy attachment with each parent” while balancing the stress levels a child encounters in negotiating two homes. All of this work is done with the goal of assisting practitioners in the field to make recommendations informed by clinical as well as empirical knowledge.

Dr. Pruett says that collaboration with her colleagues in the Family Research Scholars program has been critically important, weaving together research, advocacy and public policy that “can’t come from any one of us alone.”

Wendy Varner, Associate Director of the Center for Research on Families, says, “We are fortunate to have someone like Marsha Pruett involved with CRF. She embodies the goal of the Scholars program: to bring innovative researchers together to foster engagement and development of collaborations across disciplines. We are enthusiastic about developing connections with faculty throughout the Five Colleges.”

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Since 2003, CRF has offered the Family Research Scholars Program, which provides selected UMass and Five Colleges faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship, and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal for their research support.

Drew Thiemann, MPPA '16