A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program
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Wrenetha
Julion

PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN

I want all fathers to know how valuable they are to their children; in the short-term, long-term, and throughout their lifetime.

Wrenetha Julion always knew she wanted to be a nurse. But her “aha” moment as a researcher occurred when she studied an evaluation of fatherhood programs in her doctoral studies. It was then she realized that she wanted to focus her research on African-American fathers who live in homes apart from their children.

Nurturing a Concern for Fathers

Soon after completing her master’s in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Wrenetha joined Dr. Deborah Gross, a researcher from Rush University College of Nursing, on a grant designed to provide parent training to low-income families of color. Wrenetha participated on this grant while simultaneously working toward her doctorate in nursing.

Through these experiences, Wrenetha got the chance to talk to fathers — many of whom were unmarried and living in a different household from their children.

She was surprised to learn how little attention had been given to this particular group of fathers, both in the research community and society at large.

“These men love their children and want to be involved in their children’s lives,” she reflects. “Yet there’s this negative perception of them, as if they don’t care about their families or children. It’s the ‘deadbeat dad’ label.”

The lack of research and negative labeling of fathers only served to spur on Wrenetha’s research.

“When a mom and dad can’t communicate effectively and work together, the father often gets left out of the equation,” she asserts. “But children would be better off with both parents in their lives.”

Wrenetha’s own life experiences help her state this so confidently. In her community growing up, she saw that parents with fathers not living in the home struggled to agree and cooperate, and that some fathers faced challenges maintaining connections with their children.

Creating Solutions for Families

When Wrenetha became a New Connections grantee in 2007, Princeton University and Columbia University were at the forefront of conducting research with fathers and mothers through the “Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study.” Wrenetha’s grant focused on analyzing datasets from this study, which followed nearly 5,000 children born in U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000. A significant number of these children were born to unmarried parents.

Thanks to New Connections, the work she did with these datasets positioned her ultimately to become funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As principal investigator on a four-year NIH/National Institute of Nursing Research study, Wrenetha is testing the effectiveness of a preventive parenting intervention for African-American fathers. This intervention, Building Bridges to Fatherhood, helps fathers understand their importance to their children, parent effectively, and communicate with their children’s mothers.

If the intervention proves effective, Wrenetha hopes to make it accessible more broadly to other fathers of color who face challenges to fatherhood. Because even though Wrenetha sees the fatherhood issue as a significant concern in African-American communities, she has found that “the fatherhood issue goes beyond race or ethnicity. It’s a broader issue.”

Wrenetha also has a vision of spreading the intervention to fathers who are involved in the criminal justice system — both while they are in the system, and once they return home.

Currently, Wrenetha is a professor and acting chairperson of Rush University College of Nursing’s Women Children and Family Nursing department. She also serves as academic advisor for PhD, Doctor of Nursing Practice and graduate entry master’s students.

Along with Drs. Deborah Gross and Christine Garvey, she is the co-author of the Chicago Parent Program, a videotape-based parent education program currently being implemented nationally. She also is the author of the Julion Index of Paternal Involvement, a research instrument designed to measure the extent to which fathers are involved with their children in 19 activities important to positive child outcomes.