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Intimate Partner Violence: Translating Research into Practice and Policy


In 1974, the first U.S. shelter for battered women opened in Minnesota. Within several years, interventions for men who batter were initiated. Despite over two decades of work to eliminate intimate partner violence, it continues to be a major social and health problem.

Faculty at the University of Michigan School of Social Work were pioneers in early efforts in this area, and have continued to be leaders by translating their research findings into practice and policy. Throughout this time, they have focused increasingly on broader social change efforts. Research generated by faculty at the SSW has played a role in program and policy developments for others to emulate, both here and abroad. Other countries have a growing recognition of the problem, in part because many international human rights organizations now view violence against women as a basic human rights issue.


At the UM SSW, research on intimate partner violence addresses a broad range of topics and has had a significant impact on policies and practices within the United States and abroad. Findings from Professors Richard Tolman, Daniel Saunders, and Mieko Yoshihama have influenced U.S. Health and Human Services regulations regarding family violence, led to changes in formal interventions for men who batter, and influenced social policy in Japan leading to legislation and services for women victims of domestic abuse. Their research has involved individual projects, and collaborations among the three of them, other colleagues, and students. It has led to improvements in programs for men who are violent to their partners; enhanced understanding of cultural variables in coping strategies among immigrant battered women; and recognition of risk factors for woman abuse among welfare recipients. In addition, the findings of these faculty have provided technical assistance, and influenced social policy and practices in Japan, Korea, Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, and Croatia.

This research on intimate partner violence occurs alongside a broader range of research on violence by members of the School's Faculty Interest Group on Interpersonal Violence, involving thirteen faculty members. The work of this larger group addresses a wide variety of studies on all types of individual and family maltreatment. These include work by Ron Astor addressing school violence; studies by David Burton on sexual aggression among youth and children; interventions in high-risk populations by Larry Gant; studies by Kathleen Faller on child abuse, maltreatment, and neglect; work by William Meezan on foster care and community-based family and children's services; studies by Beth Glover Reed on substance and alcohol abuse among battered women; studies on adolescent problem behavior by John Wallace; and work addressing infant mortality by Deborah Wilkinson.

The work of these faculty is characterized by its applied nature and focus on social systems. The faculty interest group also has developed new courses, including ones addressing family violence prevention and intervention, abused women, and sex offender interventions; and has updated existing courses to include new content on violence detection and prevention.


In the area of intimate partner violence, research findings have supplied important new knowledge for practice. Professor Daniel Saunders believes that addressing this area within a social work context provides a unique opportunity for change at the individual, family, and societal levels. Saunders notes that social workers have been "leaders in the development of services for battered women and their partners. Their focus on social systems has also meant they have led the development of coordinated community response plans involving many types of agencies." According to Saunders, social workers have "tried to keep a focus on the social roots of the problem and long-term prevention efforts-individual help combined with social change efforts." He adds that the most promising avenue of research also addresses individual and social factors, and draws from all of the social sciences.

Saunders was the founder of one of the first intervention programs for men who batter and was one of the founders of a shelter for battered women. He also was cofounder of the University's Interdisciplinary Research Program on Violence Across the Lifespan, program of the UM's Institute for Research on Women and Gender. This program facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty; sponsors a distinguished lecture series; and obtains support for research and education in the areas of child maltreatment, woman abuse, and elder abuse.

Saunders's introduction to feminist perspectives during his graduate social work training led him to view intimate partner violence as a problem of male dominance, rather than psychopathology or faulty communication. His research findings on types of offenders have made him appreciate their diversity, and these findings have been useful in training practitioners to recognize the most dangerous types, and led to refinements in interventions. For example, one of his studies found that interventions are likely to be more effective if they are designed to fit different types of abusers. Using reports from men's partners long after treatment, Saunders found that a feminist-cognitive-behavioral approach was most effective for men with antisocial personalities, whereas a process-psychodynamic approach was most effective for men with dependent personalities. These findings have implications for intervention standards for programs being developed across the country.

Saunders recently summarized the current state of intervention research for the National Institute of Justice and the National Academy of Sciences. His review highlighted promising developments in methods for enhancing treatment motivation, assessing degrees of danger, and applying culturally competent practices. The review found that arrest, prosecution, and treatment may not be very effective in and of themselves, but may be most effective when combined in a coordinated community response.

Despite over two decades of work to eliminate intimate partner violence, it continues to be a major social and health problem.

Because formal help cannot be provided to battered women and to men who batter when abuse is undetected by professionals (as is often the case), Saunders focuses much of his research on barriers to abuse detection among professionals. He has evaluated methods to help professionals detect abuse and to provide brief interventions. He recently completed an evaluation with Deborah Anderson, a graduate of the School's doctoral program, of a statewide training program for child protection supervisors and workers. The study found that following completion of this training, these personnel demonstrated an increased tendency to provide brief interventions and to hold the abuser accountable. However, they also tended to refer battered women to couples counseling, which may be dangerous in many circumstances. Based on these findings, the training program was modified to further highlight possible risks of couples counseling. Saunders is completing a similar evaluation of welfare worker training with Professors Mark Holter and Richard Tolman, and M.S.W. program graduate Lisa Pahl. The findings are likely to enhance our understanding of welfare workers' responses to battered women, and the reasons workers help these women gain exemptions from work requirements.

Saunders's research expertise has also been applied to the public domain through his service as an expert witness in domestic homicide and child custody cases. His work on child custody decisions in domestic violence cases has been used to shape legislation in Michigan and other states. As a result, new legislation now requires that judges in these states consider a history of domestic violence when awarding custody. Recently, he served as an expert witness in a class action suit against the State of Minnesota and battered women's agencies by men's groups asserting that victimization of husbands and boyfriends was a major social problem. Using his research findings and an extensive review of domestic homicide studies, he demonstrated that men's and women's use of violence are quite different: battered women's violence is done primarily in self-defense, while men's violence is used mostly for control and intimidation. 

Saunders notes that the most effective way to end intimate partner violence will be through preventive measures, rather than interventions. This is one reason that some of his most recent work has involved teen dating violence. He feels that it is very important for us to understand how violence first develops in relationships. As he notes, "an alarming proportion of young women interpret jealousy and the abuse that sometime accompanies it as a sign of love." According to him, we need to "learn ways to effectively counter these attitudes, and more importantly, we need to know how to prevent young men from developing a sense of entitlement-and this means starting long before the teenage years."


Professor Richard Tolman has focused much of his recent research on the impact of intimate partner violence on the physical, psychological, and economic well-being of women, with a particular focus on poverty and domestic abuse as co-determinants. He also directs groups to help men change their abusive behavior. 

According to Tolman, "changes in the welfare system threaten the safety net for even the most basic needs of battered women and forces them to remain with abusive partners or be subject to poverty." Included in Tolman's research is the Women's Employment Study (WES), a survey of randomly selected welfare recipients in an urban Michigan county, which he directed along with colleagues Daniel Rosen and Professor Sandra Danziger. This study found that many women receiving welfare are current or past victims of domestic abuse, and that welfare reform may interfere with women's ability to work or lead to loss of welfare benefits, forcing many battered women to choose between remaining with abusive partners or experiencing significant economic hardship.

The findings demonstrate that women who experience persistent severe domestic abuse are almost twice as likely to be welfare-reliant than wage-reliant compared to women who have not experienced severe violence. They also are more likely to receive lower wages, to experience more material deprivation (such as homelessness, eviction, utility shut-offs, and food insufficiency), increased participation in hardship activities such as pawning possessions, and greater perceived current and future economic hardship. Prevalence of lifetime physical abuse by male partners in welfare samples tends to average between 40-60%. These findings show that domestic violence may show that domesitc violence may represent a significant barrier to welfare recipients to secure and retain employment, either due to interference by abusers with their partners' work, or because of increased risks of health and mental health problems that could compromise the partners' employability. This research has been recognized as having influenced HHS regulations issued to implement the Family Violence Option and having illustrated the critical link between domestic violence and poverty. 

These findings suggest a number of interventions that could reduce the extreme hardships encountered by victims of intimate partner abuse. Tolman and his colleagues feel that states should develop screening procedures accounting for chronic and persistent domestic violence in order to identify those women who are most likely to be impacted negatively by welfare activities. Next, they should consider temporary waivers of work requirements for women who face work interference by abusive partners, and develop special safety procedures for women in these programs. In addition, they suggest that some victims may need extended access to benefits beyond federal time limits in order to counteract the disruption of employment stability that can occur due to abuse in their homes. 

Tolman's findings have identified poverty and intimate partner abuse as being reciprocal influences. These co-determining factors have been the focus of an biannual series of national conferences entitled "Trapped by Poverty, Trapped by Abuse," co-coordinated by Tolman within the School of Social Work's Center on Poverty, Risk, and Mental Health; and colleague Jody Raphael of the Center for Impact Research in Chicago. The third conference in this annual series was held in October. 

Tolman notes that until recently, much work related to intimate partner violence focused on the criminal justice system and the criminal consequences of violent actions. He feels that the key to creating a lasting impact will be derived from increasingly integrated efforts that address economic well-being of battered women, in addition to their physical safety and emotional wellbeing. He notes that "because social work effectively spans academia and real-world practice, social workers have greater opportunities to form collaborations for integrated approaches with policy-makers and advocates in order to achieve lasting impact." The link, he says, between rigorous empirical research and communitybased approaches forms a unique crucible in which research findings can be translated to shape future change. 

As Tolman observes, advocacy on this issue has created a significant shift in public awareness, and has created effective interventions. Tolman and his colleagues believe that preventive measures represent a crucial element of future change. Along with Saunders, he, too, has studied dating violence in high schools, which he characterizes as being alarmingly high. These studies help reinforce the need for early interventions to prevent partner violence, and the need for proactive, preventive activities at the school and community level.


Changes in public recognition of intimate partner violence also have been influenced by advocacy efforts by grassroots organizations, in conjunction with social science research. In Japan, for example, domestic violence became recognized as a social problem only recently, due to action-oriented research conducted by Professor Mieko Yoshihama and colleagues, as well as international visibility afforded by such mechanisms as United Nations conferences to raise public awareness and to initiate national policy changes.

Prior to 1992, intimate partner violence was not formally addressed in Japan. Even at official levels, intimate partner violence was dismissed, with one Japanese representative to the United Nations stating that "a husband's violence against his wife does not result in grave injuries." Even feminists in Japan in the early 1990s claimed that domestic violence as "not such a serious problem." 

A random sample survey conducted in Tokyo by Yoshihama in 1992 found that the majority of respondents regarded the issue as private, infrequent, provoked at times by women, and justified under certain circumstances. Statistics documenting the actual incidence of intimate partner violence in Japan at that time, however, illustrated a strikingly different picture. Although the number of female victims murdered by intimate partners in Japan in 1995 was less than 10% of that in the United States, its proportion to the total percentage of female murder victims in that country-one third of victims-was similar to that found in the United States. In addition, over one third of all divorce mediation applications fi led by women in Japan were due to husbands' physical violence.

The absence of social policy and services had only reinforced societal tolerance of intimate partner violence in Japan. The Japanese Penal Code rarely applied existing laws regarding assault and battery to domestic violence cases, and police routinely reprimanded women seeking help. Limited social service programs existed for women who had experienced partner abuse. 

Forming the Domestic Violence Action & Research Group (DVARG), Yoshihama worked with a handful of Japanese practitioners, researchers, and activists to conduct a national survey, the results of which illustrated that intimate partner violence occurred frequently and cut across socioeconomic levels. The work of Yoshihama and her colleagues served as a catalyst for gradual social change. Japanese media coverage resulted in production of the first Japanese documentary on domestic violence, conference support, and research funding, all of which legitimized this grassroots research project. This legitimacy was enhanced further through attendance by Yoshihama and colleagues at the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, Austria, where they conducted a workshop on Violence Against Pacific Asian Women, resulting in a recommendation regarding government's accountability in addressing this problem. 

All of these advocacy activities had an effect on social policy in Japan. That same year, the first private battered women's shelter opened in Japan, and since then more than twenty have been established. This was accompanied by increased services, media coverage, and shifts in the criminal justice system. Japan's national government also responded, albeit more slowly, with a Gender Equality Plan identifying the elimination of violence against women as a high-priority policy objective. On April 6, 2001, the Japanese Diet (equivalent to the U.S. Congress) passed the Domestic Violence Prevention and Victims Assistance Act. Although this fi rst domestic violencerelated legislation needs much improvement, it clearly represents a culmination of strong grassroots activism. 

Yoshihama also conducts a wide range of research projects in the United States, including studying coping strategies of women of Japanese descent who had experienced partner violence. One of Yoshihama's studies demonstrated that cultural factors impeded the ability of battered women of Japanese descent in the United States to recognize spousal abuse and to seek help. 

Another study found a correlation among Japanese-born women between their perceived efficacy of "active" coping strategies (such as leaving the relationship . and seeking outside help) and psychological distress. According to Yoshihama, "interventions cannot be formulated on a 'one size-fits-all' basis." Yoshihama has shown that conventional approaches within the criminal justice system may not be effective among individuals with different cultural backgrounds, and may actually cause more psychological distress among immigrant women. Furthermore, because immigration policies can be punitive and detrimental for immigrant battered women, the necessity for a lternative solutions is all the more clear. She emphasizes the need to understand women's life histories and their socio-cultural contexts in order to understand their victimization and corresponding solutions. Towards this end, Yoshihama has been collaborating with Robert Belli at the UM's Institute for Social Research, and Brenda Gillespie and Julie Horrocks at the UM's Center for Statistical Consultation and Research to implement new data collection and analyses methods to capture women's lifetime experiences.

Yoshihama has extended her actionoriented research into Hmong communities in the Detroit Metropolitan area, working with members of this ethnic minority group from the mountains of Laos who were displaced during the Vietnam War. In a community-based study, Yoshihama and a doctoral student, E. Summerson Carr, employed photovoice methodology developed by Caroline Wong in the School of Public Health, in which photographs were used with bilingual assistance to direct questions and faci litate discussion. Participants received cameras and took pictures to illustrate the challenges in their Jives, as well as assets of their families and communities.Through this study, technical assistance was provided to this group that allowed them to develop knowledge and skills in needs and assets assessment, grant-writing, and organizational development, all of which led
eventually to the formation of the Hmong Women United of Michigan, Inc.-the first and only 501(c) agency for Hmong women
in Michigan. As Yoshihama notes, "by structuring the project to meet community needs, this participatory action research project was able to achieve social change and improvement." 

Yoshihama echoes the opinions of Saunders and Tolman when she observes that "'band-aid' approaches that deal episodically with intimate partner violence will not achieve the major surgery on society and their socio-cultural contexts in order to understand their victimization and corresponding solutions. Towards this end, Yoshihama has been collaborating with Robert Belli at the UM's Institute for Social Research, and that is necessary to end violence against women." By developing effective interventions, examining co-determinants that lead to patterns, considering socio-cultural contexts, and working with communities to generate strategies, research findings have been translated into policy and practice.

These three colleagues feel that social workers are uniquely suited to pursue these paths. The primary goal of social work research, according to all of them, is not only to generate knowledge, but to use that knowledge to eradicate social problems. By developing preventive programs and socio-culturally relevant interventions, they believe, we can approach this problem with proactive solutions, rather than reactive responses.

Written by Nili Tannenbaum

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