CHAPEL HILL — A UNC professor’s study is providing an eye-opening glimpse into the lives of women after domestic abuse.
According to research published in the online journal Research on Social Work Practice, women who completed a mandated intervention program designed to improve family safety, self-esteem and parenting skills were less likely to be victims again and more likely to leave abusive partners or spouses.
The research found up to three months after the program, the women were almost 97 percent less likely to have experienced repeat physical abuse and 84 percent less likely to have been psychologically abused.
Statistics show many women in abusive relationships have tried to leave but could not find help. The research data also found at three months after program completion, about 81 percent of women were no longer with abusive partners.
Rebecca Macy, a professor in the School of Social Work, led the team that began the study in 2008. She said the findings are groundbreaking because there is a lack of studies of whether programs helping families struggling with domestic violence really make a difference.
It appears that some do.
“Lots of money is spent on services, but not many domestic violence prevention practices have been evaluated,” Macy said.
Without that understanding, it is hard for agencies working in violence prevention to know what works best for clients.
Armed with $600,000 from the Duke Endowment, Macy’s team’s research followed women and children participating in Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment or MOVE, a collaborative between two Wake County nonprofits.
InterAct of Wake County, a domestic violence prevention agency, and SAFEchild Raleigh, a child abuse prevention agency, started MOVE in 2007 after finding that many women were being arrested after fighting back against abusers in attempts to protect children or pets.
In the 1980s, most of the nation tightened domestic violence arrest laws and in many states, including North Carolina, law enforcement is often required to arrest someone if called.
It can be tough to decide who goes to jail.
For instance, a woman who may have been choked may not have bruising show up for days, but if she fights back, the abusive partner may have visible scratches or bruises. Those women fighting back often find themselves in mandated programs, like MOVE, through court or child protective orders.
While some women are primary perpetrators, research finds most are victims. Still, nationally, between 10 and 25 percent of domestic violence arrests are women.
Stacey Sullivan, a clinical supervisor for SAFEchild and the MOVE program’s coordinator, wanted to find answers with the study. Many women in MOVE, for example, initially called police for help but many responding agencies struggle with how to help.
“Domestic violence is so complex that the system isn’t always adept at handling the situation,” Macy said.
The 13-week MOVE program builds a support network around women and their children.
Held one evening a week, the program includes training workshops in parenting and self-advocacy. Since domestic violence erodes self-confidence over time, making it harder to leave, there are also sessions on building self-esteem and maintaining safety.
Some mothers in MOVE who have already left abusive relationships show others it is possible.
“Group support let’s them know you don’t deserve to be treated this way,” said Sullivan. “It changes how you see things.”
MOVE also provides children ages 5 to 13 years old with a group in which they receive child abuse therapy.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, between 30 percent and 60 percent of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children at home.
Women who have been out of MOVE for a year have learned to focus on themselves and their children and not relationships.
“Some are losing weight and others have quit smoking because they feel better about themselves,” said Sullivan.
As women have graduated from MOVE, Sullivan has also seen an increase in referrals from social workers.
Macy said the promising findings might translate into significant reductions in family violence. The Duke Endowment has provided an additional $250,000, allowing funding through December to collect further data on the children in MOVE.
Macy and Sullivan hope programs like it spread beyond Wake County.
“Doctors, social workers and judges may not know all the options,” Macy said. “Women should know there are options out there.”