Intimate Partner Violence: New Research Leads to Better Interventions

I first became interested in researching family violence while pursuing my Master of Social Work degree at the University of Kentucky. I was taking classes that focused on practice with children and adolescents, while also doing field work at a group home for female adolescents who were pregnant and receiving services related to parenting and academics. I saw how abuse and trauma affected the lives of girls residing in the group home and knew I wanted to focus on this area.

When I graduated, I took a position at a state psychiatric hospital where I worked as a therapist in a long-term residential unit for adolescents and I supervised social work services on a chemical dependency unit for adults. Again, the theme of abuse and victimization was prevalent in the lives of clients across these settings. During this time, I met a young male who talked about witnessing the physical abuse of his brother by his mother’s boyfriend. Although he was not directly maltreated, he spoke often about what happened to his brother and how much it affected him.

This propelled my research interest in children who are not directly maltreated, but reside in families where one or more of their siblings is physically maltreated. I soon realized that, aside from a few studies published in the ’80s and early ’90s, no one was really focusing on the subject. Researchers seemed to focus their work either with children who were directly maltreated or children who were exposed to adult intimate partner violence (IPV). I wanted to understand what effect exposure to child maltreatment had on children and adolescents. Through exploring this topic I expanded my knowledge base on children’s exposure to IPV and on women’s experiences with IPV, and I continue to focus on multiple types of family violence in my research.

I am currently involved with three research projects that focus on different aspects of IPV. It is my belief that, with better data and understanding of IPV and child maltreatment, we can create more effective methods of intervention and prevention.

Project 1: Group Therapy for Women and Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence

This project is funded by the University of Minnesota’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. It is a collaborative, community-engaged project done in partnership with Angela Lewis-Dmello, MSW. She is the Director of Client Services at Domestic Abuse Project (DAP), a Minneapolis–based organization with a 30-year history of providing therapeutic services to families who experience IPV.

The focus is on the effects of therapeutic groups for women and children who have experienced IPV. The study includes two groups—an intervention and a control. Both are comprised of women and children seeking services at DAP. The intervention group consists of children participating in a 12-week therapy group and women/mothers participating in a concurrent 12-week parenting group. The control group consists of women/mothers participating in group services without a parenting focus and children not participating in group therapy services.

As you can imagine, children exposed to IPV have seen and heard a lot of things and are often left not understanding what healthy behavior and communication looks like within a family environment. During the 12 weeks of group treatment at DAP, children (ages 5 to 15) receive information and education about what abuse is and what is okay and not okay within family interactions. They also learn how to express their feelings about abuse and work to develop a safety plan. Over the course of the group, many children display changes in affect, expression of emotion, and reduction in aggressive behavior. The children talk more about their feelings and work to turn them into something more productive rather than holding them in or acting out.

The mothers in the parenting group work to better understand their children’s experiences of violence in the home. DAP therapists work with the women to understand what it’s like for a little one to be in a family environment with a lot of fighting and abuse. Through this study, we examine how involvement in the parenting group shapes parent-child interactions in the home, and ask for example, whether women are reporting positive changes in the relationships with their children.

Because the study includes women and children receiving different services, we are able to measure the results of the intervention group against those of women and children who are receiving services through DAP, but are not participating in the psychosocial intervention. Although we are still collecting data, I have completed follow-up interviews with many of the women in the intervention group and all but one said the gains their children made in the group have been sustained in the months since the group has ended. They all also reported positive changes in their family’s communication and parent-child relationships. I believe the study results will demonstrate many successes associated with DAP’s therapy group curriculum for children and women, which will be a value to DAP and many other service providers who work with this client population.

Project 2: Intimate Partner Violence and Civil Legal Services

This project was funded by the National Institute of Justice in 2011 and officially began in 2012. In this study, my colleague from the University of Iowa and I are focusing on how civil legal services impact the lives of women who have experienced IPV.

To collect data, we employed several interviewers across Iowa, covering both rural areas and cities like Iowa City, Sioux City, Council Bluffs, Ottumwa, Waterloo, and Des Moines. All of the women in the study have current experiences or recent histories of IPV and are seeking family law services or civil protective orders through Iowa Legal Aid. Women are interviewed, in-person, every six-months for a total of two years and data is collected on their history of IPV and any re-victimization, along with measures of psychological well-being, parenting, and economic self-sufficiency.

Prior researchers suggest that women who have a high-quality relationship with therapists make substantial gains. In this study, we wanted to see if women who reported a strong bond with their attorney, believed they were respected during the court process (i.e., procedural justice), and believed that they received a fair outcome (i.e., distributive justice) would report greater empowerment over time and experience improvements in psychological well-being.

We are still collecting data on the 150 women who started in the first wave. The initial findings show that women are making substantial gains over the two years they are in the study. They report a decrease in physical and emotional violence, fewer mental health symptoms, and increased resilience and parenting satisfaction. They also report high levels of procedural and distributive justice and state that they are making improvements in their family’s economic conditions.

Project 3: Intimate Partner Violence and the Health Care System

A third project that connects IPV and healthcare was recently funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women’s Health. This project is a collaboration between myself, Dr. Cari Clark from the University of Minnesota Department of Medicine, and Dr. Mary Logeais, a physician at the University of Minnesota Primary Care Center, along with a larger community network of service providers. Our goal with this M-Health Community Network Project is to improve screening, referrals, and interventions related to IPV in adult outpatient healthcare settings.

Most healthcare providers believe it is important to screen for IPV, but many report feeling unprepared to handle the situation when a woman states that she is experiencing violence. We have to be prepared when those issues arise and a goal of this project is to provide healthcare professionals with training, knowledge, and assessment skills. We want to help create a system of care that is able to work effectively with people who are experiencing IPV. We want to develop a seamless exchange between the clinic network and the vast resources in our community. We want to avoid long delays or gaps in services that can prevent women from seeking help or receiving help when there isn’t a coordinated network of care.

We’ve completed pilot work at the University’s primary care center, and will expand the project to include both primary and specialty clinics at the Minnesota Clinics and Surgery Center, which is scheduled to open in February 2016. Our focus is on training physicians, rooming staff and other clinic providers to screen for IPV using evidence-based tools. We are also working to expand and standardize existing counseling and referral strategies for IPV, both within the clinics and across the community network, and we will evaluate the effectiveness of the Network project on improving the health and well-being of women.

Through these projects and other high-quality research occurring in CEHD and across the University of Minnesota, I believe we can strengthen existing interventions and develop new approaches to more effectively meet the needs of women and children who have experienced IPV and/or child maltreatment. By doing so, we can help create a healthier, safer environment for women, children, and families today and for years to come.

Lynette M. Renner, MSW, Ph.D.

About the Author

Lynette M. Renner, MSW, Ph.D.

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