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Grad Student Focuses Research on Child Welfare

Jenna Armstrong
Psychology Ph.D. student Jenna Armstrong has received a Doris Duke Fellowship. (Natalie Hampton photo)

The stress of life in a homeless shelter can take a toll on families. NC State psychology graduate student Jenna Montgomery Armstrong wants to find out if an evidence-based family intervention tool called Triple P can help prevent child abuse and neglect among families living in shelters.

To support her work on her doctoral dissertation in school psychology, Armstrong received one of 15 Doris Duke Fellowships for the Promotion of Child Well-Being. These competitive fellowships provide an annual stipend of $30,000 for up to two years to help graduate students complete their dissertation and related research at their academic institutions.

The Doris Duke Fellowships are designed to develop a new generation of leaders with skills to create practice and policy initiatives to enhance child development and help prevent all forms of child maltreatment. The program also provides a peer learning network of fellows, their mentors, researchers and policymakers.

Families experiencing homelessness are more likely to be referred to child protective services. Armstrong wants to investigate whether an intervention tool called Triple P – Positive Parenting Program – can help reduce the incidence of parents being referred to child protective services.

“When you think about families experiencing homelessness, they’ve often experienced several traumatic events that have led them there. Whether that’s domestic violence or parental mental illness or extreme poverty – all of those risk factors lead to higher risk for child maltreatment,” Armstrong said.

“And then you add experiencing homelessness to that list, it is clear these families are at increased risk for negative outcomes. These parents and children already have so many things working against them,” she said.

In a study published in February, Armstrong and her adviser, Professor of Psychology Mary Haskett found that 25 percent of children experiencing homelessness in Wake County are in need of mental health services, another stress factor for these families. Triple P is a tiered intervention program being used throughout Wake County. The first three levels of intervention are: 1) information for the general population; 2) a brief interaction, such as a tip sheet shared with a parent or a one-hour lesson; and 3) a more intensive interaction with a parent and follow-up phone calls or a group session.

After conducting an intervention with parents, Armstrong will follow up with families three months later to determine the effectiveness of the intervention. Because homeless families tend to be transient, she wants to reach out to families within a short period of time. “So many people are reluctant to try evidence-based programs with this population because they’re so transient,” Armstrong said. “So I’ll be looking at the effectiveness of these programs, as well as the feasibility and acceptability of these programs. Do the parents feel like they’re getting something out of it?”

Though the funding for the fellowship will be helpful, Armstrong says she is equally excited about the peers she’ll work with through the program. She will also have a policy mentor, Carmela Decandia, from the National Center for Family Homelessness. Fellows will participate in two meetings and four webinars each year.

The experience will place Armstrong in a network with scholars from many other disciplines. “These peer relationships will help launch me into my career – that’s the networking aspect of it,” she said.

After she completes her doctorate, Armstrong said she would like to be involved in policy work related to family resiliency. “I would like to advocate for larger systems-level changes for these children at higher risk and these families that are invisible to society,” she said.

By Natalie Hampton. This article first appeared in NC State’s Graduate School News.

More about Armstrong’s dissertation and the Doris Duke Fellowship: Armstrong Story from NC State’s The Abstract on February journal article co-authored by Armstrong and her adviser, Dr. Mary Haskett, Early Childhood Education Journal