The Center for Family Research (CFR) was established in 1985 as an integral part of the Owens Institute for Behavioral Research (OIBR) at the University of Georgia. The purpose was to bring together scholars from diverse disciplines to explore innovative and dynamic ways of examining family life. The Center quickly became very successful in stimulating intellectual interchange and enhancing its members’ ability to obtain extramural funding. Grant-supported projects focused on family processes, family stress, and prevention/intervention efforts.
In 1995, Gene Brody became director of CFR. Dr. Velma McBride Murry served as co-director from 1995 until 2008, when she accepted an endowed chair position at Vanderbilt University. Under Brody and Murry’s leadership, CFR activities began to focus more specifically on the reciprocal impact of children, their caregivers, and the broader community context on health and psychological adjustment among African American families living in the rural South.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to find out why things go wrong,” Brody insists. “But, we were trying to develop models of what promotes competence. We asked ourselves why some kids do well in school, have good family and peer relationships and are free from behavioral and emotional problems even though they live in difficult situations.”
Beginning in the early 1990s, Drs. Brody and Murry implemented two large multi-informant, multi-method, longitudinal studies to identify and track the contextual factors that promote healthy development in rural African American families. Their findings demonstrated that powerful protective factors that help to prevent child and adolescent problem behaviors originate in the family environment, particularly in parents’ caregiving practices. Effective caregiver-child relationships foster self-regulation, academic competence, and psychological adjustment.
This research has informed the development of multiple preventive interventions at CFR. The first such intervention, the Strong African American Families program (SAAF), was tested in a randomized prevention trial with more than 600 families. Positive outcomes, specifically delayed onset of alcohol use and unsafe sexual activity, are persisting into the third year after intervention. Four additional interventions are currently being tested.
Brody recalls, “Urie Bronfenbrenner once said, ‘If you want to understand something, try to change it.’ We test theory just as if we were testing a pill for the FDA; but our pill is our prevention programs for families living in challenging circumstances.”
With decades of contextual data available – including reports from primary caregivers, adolescents, close friends, supportive adults, and teachers – as well as community level-databases depicting the environments in which families live, CFR was uniquely prepared to capitalize on the latest research related to human genetics. In 2003, Dr. Steven Beach began a study group at CFR focused on gene-environment interactions. Led by Dr. Beach in collaboration with Dr. Robert Philibert, a geneticist at Iowa University, CFR began to collect genetic samples from participants in longitudinal and intervention studies. Adding a genetic component to our models for understanding individuals and families has allowed more sophisticated and sensitive answers to the questions we ask. Particularly exciting results have emerged in the context of exploring genetic risk factors and intervention outcomes.
In 2008, CFR initiated another strand of biological research to explore “allostatic load” – a metric that describes the body’s physical response to chronic stress – among rural African American young adults. Our goal is to make a contribution to the understanding of health disparities between African American and Caucasian adults.
CFR currently receives more than $30 million in external funding for its research. Projects are supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Templeton Foundation, the W. T. Grant Foundation, and the Georgia Governor’s Office of Children and Families.