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CDC award expands child violence researcher’s work 

by Nancy E. Oates

Violence against children happens more frequently for children living in poverty, studies show. Often the safety net services in place to alleviate poverty may not be accessible to the people who need them most.  

Rebecca Rebbe, an assistant professor at UNC School of Social Work who uses big data to study child maltreatment, has received a prestigious K01 Career Development Award from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The two-year grant will enable her to expand her research to include multiple forms of violence against children and to learn a new research method.  

At the end of September, Rebbe will begin the new project, called “A multi-level examination of social safety net accessibility as a modifiable structural condition contributing to violence against children.” 

Rebbe’s primary mentor will be Emily Putnam-Hornstein, the John A. Tate Distinguished Professor for Children in Need at UNC’s School of Social Work and co-director of the Children’s Data Network. Epidemiology professor Steve Marshall at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, who directs UNC’s Injury Prevention Research Center, and Michael Hudgens, professor and chair of the biostatistics department at the Gillings School, who is an expert in causal inference, will also provide mentorship.  

The grant gives Rebbe the opportunity to learn and apply a new research method, causal inference. The method attempts to move beyond associations and correlation. By using advanced statistical methods, causal inference aims to pinpoint what’s driving outcomes. Hudgens is an expert in causal inference and has contributed to UNC’s reputation as a leader in the innovative approach.  

Rebbe’s work made possible by the grant continues a long-standing research interest by the School of Social Work and the Injury Prevention Research Center. Rebbe impressed Marshall when she gave a webinar as part of an educational series at the center, he said.  

“I’m excited because the grant creates a bridge between my center and the School of Social Work,” Marshall said. “We’re delighted to encourage collaboration with the School of Social Work and support its mission through this talented researcher.”  

Rebbe will apply her facility with big data sets to the research project to examine the relationship between social service availability and violence against children. “Not much previous work has looked at the relationship between social service accessibility and violence against children,” Rebbe said.

Rebbe will apply her facility with big data sets to the research project to examine the relationship between social service availability and violence against children.

She will focus on children in Los Angeles County, tracking children born in various census tracts in the county, from wealthy neighborhoods to low-income areas, and following them longitudinally to discover which children experience different forms of violence. To do this, she’ll look at Child Protective Services records, hospital records of children seen for violence-related reasons and those who were killed.

Firearm injuries are the leading cause of death among children in the United States. 

“The hypothesis is that kids born in neighborhoods where accessibility doesn’t match the need for social services are more likely to experience violence during childhood,” she said. 

Child violence research traditionally focuses on factors specific to the individual and family. Rebbe’s research will study community conditions.  

Previous research has shown that accessibility is worse in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. As Rebbe wrote in her grant application, “safety net accessibility is a modifiable community-level intervention that can be used for violence prevention.”

Safety net refers to social services that address such needs as housing, mental health, job training, addiction treatment and food insecurity. 

Rebbe began her career as a social worker and supervisor in child protective services. She has a master’s degree in education from Harvard in Risk and Prevention. She completed her MSW practicum as part of the Child Protection Team at Boston Children’s Hospital. She has had several years of clinical practice and earned a PhD in social welfare, as well as doing graduate study in advanced social science statistics and demographic methods. Rebbe taught at the University of Southern California before joining the faculty at UNC.

In addition to the research project, the grant also has an important training component. Rebbe has chosen activities that tap into strengths at UNC, elements she didn’t have a background in, such as causal inference. She will take classes and attend workshops and conferences, networking with others doing cutting-edge research in the field.

“The grant sets me up to have stronger methodology skills and a larger tool kit to make my research more impactful,” she said. 

She will make connections across campus, including her collaboration with researchers at the injury center. 

“Violence against children is a tough field,” she said, “but still I feel hopeful. Violence is preventable and my research might reveal an intervention or policy change that could improve lives.”

Violence against children is a significant public health problem and societal concern. The prevalence of harm inflicted against children that the big data sets reveal can be heart-wrenching. Nevertheless, Rebbe is buoyed by the potential to make a difference.  

“Violence against children is a tough field,” she said, “but still I feel hopeful. Violence is preventable and my research might reveal an intervention or policy change that could improve lives.”