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Cynthia Fraga Rizo: How social workers handle intimate partner violence

The following article originally appeared in UNC’s The Well.

Two in five women and one in four men in the United States experienced sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner and reported an IPV-related impact during their lifetime, according to the Center for Disease Control’s recently updated survey.

In North Carolina last month, Gov. Roy Cooper declared October 2022 “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.”

How does intimate partner violence affect the practice of social work? How are researchers at Carolina tackling this serious societal and public health problem, one that often begins early in life and can be preventable? For answers, we turned to UNC School of Social Work Associate Professor Cynthia Fraga Rizo, whose practice experience and research both focus on intimate partner violence. Rizo was the recipient of the 2017 Linda Saltzman New Investigator Award given by Futures Without Violence and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Statistics show that intimate partner violence occurs nearly every 15 seconds in this country. What do we mean when we say “intimate partner violence?” Who does it affect?

We are talking about violence that occurs between current or former intimate partners and can include physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, psychological aggression and economic abuse. The CDC survey results illustrate that intimate partner violence often causes injury and other serious health concerns and economic consequences. It can result in PTSD symptoms, missed workdays and the need for law enforcement help. In the U.S., more than half of all people of color reported experiencing this type of violence, so it is burdening some populations more than others. And this type of violence often starts early, with many first-time victims under the age of 25.
Anyone can be affected by this public health issue.

How do social workers get involved?

Almost all social workers will interface with people who have experienced intimate partner violence. This will be a factor regardless of area of specialization, in everything from child welfare to addiction work, homelessness to hospitalization.

We need to improve prevention and intervention efforts against this type of violence.

In addition, we have to make sure that when someone who has experienced intimate partner violence victimization interacts with systems or formal sources of support, including social workers, they are met with someone who understands this type of violence, can identify it and can connect the person to needed resources in a kind and empathetic manner.

That is why I am so pleased that the School of Social Work is partnering with Arizona State University to bring Survivor Link to our students. This year, I am serving as faculty coordinator and have nine Carolina students participating with me in the expansion of the Arizona State University-based training program. The ASU Office of Gender-Based Violence developed Survivor Link with intimate partner violence experts from across the country.

Our students have joined a group of 99 students in 14 schools of social work across 11 states who are participating. We’re all working to build capacity among the community agencies — like schools, courts and public health agencies — with which social workers often partner. The goal is to improve knowledge about preventing intimate partner violence and support the use of evidence-based intervention for survivors. We also provide stipends to students serving at local nonprofits where they are dedicated to disrupting gender-based violence.

Your primary research focus consists of developing and evaluating interventions for particularly vulnerable survivors of interpersonal violence, including Latine survivors and youth. Can you tell us about a related research project you’ve been working on lately?

I’m working with my colleague Tonya Van Deinse, research associate professor, on what we call an evaluability assessment and formative evaluation of co-located models for serving people who have experienced intimate partner and sexual violence, including family justice centers. Let me explain: In essence, we are trying to (1) determine if it is possible to evaluate these types of centers, (2) identify the best ways to evaluate these centers and (3) test approaches and tools for evaluating co-located centers and their approach to service delivery.

Often, survivors of intimate partner violence interact with multiple resources for support. They might start at a domestic violence agency; interface with a law enforcement officer to report the crime; seek a protective order from a clerk of the court; and go to a hospital to be examined by a nurse, for example. The complexity of this model can be burdensome.

Co-located models such as family justice centers bring crisis, law enforcement, legal, medical and other service agencies under one roof to provide a one-stop service for survivors. The theory is that more coordination leads to better wraparound services and better outcomes. It’s a model that has seen some growth in our state and continues to interest policymakers and practitioners alike.

Does the theory bear out in practice? Although anecdotal and preliminary evidence is promising, I’d say more research is needed. These models are complicated and hard to evaluate.

We’re currently working with eight co-located centers across North Carolina on pilot strategies and tools to help them evaluate their services in Alamance, Buncombe, Gaston, Guilford, Henderson, Mecklenburg and Wake counties. We look forward to launching phase two of this project in the coming months.

As Gov. Cooper said in his proclamation, “Working together, we can raise awareness and break the cycle of violence in order to build safer communities for all.” I believe in that goal, and in evidence-based research that will help us improve our prevention and intervention efforts.

If you or a loved one are experiencing intimate partner abuse, these resources are available.

Local Resources:

State Resources:

National Resources: