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UNC study finds promising results in domestic violence prevention program

A groundbreaking UNC study on domestic violence prevention has found that women who completed an intervention program designed to improve their families’ safety, strengthen their self-esteem, and enhance their parenting skills were less likely to be re-victimized and more likely to leave an abusive spouse or partner.

School of Social Work researcher Rebecca Macy led a team of UNC colleagues in directing the five-year study, which is believed to be the first in the country to focus on survivors of domestic violence who have become entangled in the courts or with child protective services (CPS) as a result of fighting back against their abuser.

The Duke Endowment, a Charlotte-based private foundation that strengthens communities in North Carolina and South Carolina, supported the $600,000 study, which was recently published online in the journal, Research and Social Work Practice. The study is considered novel because so few of the country’s domestic violence prevention practices have been evaluated, Macy noted. Without properly reviewing such programs, agencies may struggle to understand what works best for their clients, she said.

The UNC research aims to shed some light on that question by focusing on the success of a program called, “Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment” or MOVE. MOVE is a collaborative effort between nonprofits, InterAct of Wake County, which provides domestic violence prevention services, and SAFEchild Raleigh, which offers services for child abuse prevention. The agencies started MOVE in 2007 after staff at both noticed a surprising trend: many of the women seeking their help had been arrested for fighting back against their abuser, largely to protect their children, themselves or a pet.

Because these women were not like the primary abusers the agencies traditionally served, the groups initially struggled with how to assist them. Generally, clients enter the Wake County agencies voluntarily. But after national arrest laws around intimate partner violence were tightened in the 1980s, many more agencies began encountering women who had fought back against their abuser and then ordered by a court or child protective services to seek violence prevention help.

Ultimately, MOVE was launched to address the complex needs of a growing number of women mandated to receive services, to help build a network of support around them, and to provide a safety net for their children, said Macy, the School of Social Work’s L. Richardson Preyer Distinguished Chair for Strengthening Families. Nearly 140 women have enrolled in the program over the past six years.

“So many of the women MOVE has worked with have complicated histories, and many have had years of victimization,” Macy explained. “For those reasons, these are individuals who feel badly about themselves, and they blame themselves for the abuse in their relationships.”
The intervention program attempts to alter that line of thinking by helping participants regain their self-confidence, develop the tools needed to be better parents, and break the cycle of violence.

“One of the primary goals is to give them a chance to feel good about themselves again and to help them make healthy decisions for themselves and for their children,” said Stacey Sullivan, MSW ’89, a clinical supervisor at SAFEchild and MOVE program coordinator.

MOVE offers 13 weeks of safety and parenting support, including coping and problem-solving techniques. Meetings also focus on helping the mothers feel special and include sit-down dinners with festive plates and a cake.

Given that violence in the home can affect a child’s emotional, academic and social well-being, participants’ children also receive therapeutic group counseling, including advice on communicating feelings, managing anger and promoting self-advocacy.

According to the UNC study, MOVE has shown promising results. First, researchers found that up to three months after participants completed the program, there was a 96.5 percent reduction in the likelihood that they would experience any kind of physical abuse again. There was also a nearly 84 percent decrease in the odds that the women would experience any form of psychological abuse.

“In comparison to when the women entered the program, they were far less likely to report being physically as well as psychologically victimized by their male partners or spouses, both at program completion and three months afterwards,” Macy said of results, which were based on 70 women who completed the intervention and who agreed to participate in the study.

“These findings also show a sustained reduction in violence, which is exciting given the severity of the physical and psychological victimization the women reported in the year before they entered MOVE.”

In addition, Macy and her colleagues found that the participating women—most of whom were mothers with children ages 5 and younger—were also less likely to respond to abuse with physical or psychological violence. According to research results, the odds that MOVE participants would commit psychological or physical abuse reduced 89.2 percent and 93.6 percent, respectfully, following program completion.

Perhaps even more promising, researchers found that many women left abusive relationships after graduating from the MOVE program. According to the UNC study, at the beginning of the program, 42 percent of the participating women remained with their abusive partner; that percentage dropped to 32 percent after participants completed MOVE. At the three-month follow-up, only 19 percent still remained with their abusive partner, the study showed.

“I think the structure of this program is what really mattered,” Macy explained of the positive results. “I also think this collaboration is an example of why community-based research is so innovative and important. Because had I come up with this program in my office, I never would have thought to include some of the self-esteem activities that InterAct and SAFEchild thought to do.”

Although pleased with the early results, UNC researchers say a more stringent study is needed before MOVE can be replicated and promoted as an evidence-based practice.

In the meantime, Macy and her colleagues are currently gathering more data about the experience of the children involved in the program. The Duke Endowment is supporting this phase of the research with a $250,000 grant. The goal, Macy said, is to better understand how MOVE might also help children, as well as their mothers. After all, “research shows that children who are exposed to domestic violence growing up often have serious physical health, mental health and relationship problems as adults when compared to people who grew up in families without violence,” Macy said.

“So, we are investigating how MOVE might help enhance the well-being of children who have been exposed to domestic violence,” she added. “We also want to begin to understand how to break the cycle of violence and victimization that are sometimes repeated in families.”

Long-term, Sullivan hopes results from the research study can help many more families struggling with domestic violence. “If (MOVE) can make a difference, we don’t want it to be a secret that we keep,” she said. “The more people we reach, all the better.”

The Duke Endowment is based in Charlotte, N.C., and was established in 1924 by industrialist and philanthropist James B. Duke. The private foundation strengthens communities in North Carolina and South Carolina by nurturing children, promoting health, educating minds and enriching spirits. Since its founding, the organization has distributed more than $3 billion in grants.