UMBC psychology faculty work to prevent intimate partner violence and support survivors

UMBC’s psychology faculty closely collaborate with communities on research to prevent intimate partner and gender-based violence and to support survivors. Their work to transform systems is earning support from government agencies and colleagues in their field, with new awards that will enable them to have an even greater impact. 

Meeting the needs of the community

Chris Murphy, a professor of clinical psychology, has received a $420,000 grant from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. The three-year grant will fund a research collaboration with the Gateway Program at the House of Ruth Maryland in Baltimore City to assess their Batterer Intervention Program (BIP) supportive services model. 

The 26-week court-ordered rehabilitation program is designed to hold offenders of intimate partner violence (IPV) accountable and to maintain survivors’ safety. It focuses on changing participants’ violent behavior through lessons about power and control as well as nonviolent strategies for communication.

“We know that one abusive partner can create multiple victims and, if they have children, they begin a generational cycle that is difficult to interrupt,” says Lisa Nitsch ‘01, psychology, a social worker and director of training and education at the House of Ruth Maryland. “It is time for us to stop asking why victims choose to stay in abusive relationships and start asking why abusive partners feel entitled to terrorize their victims.”

To better meet the needs of the communities they serve, the Gateway Program developed a culturally sensitive approach to their BIPs over the last two years. Through that process, they found that BIPs don’t usually address several issues impacting clients, such as past trauma, mental health, employment, or parenting. 

In collaboration with a number of city agencies, the Gateway Program developed a supportive services model to complement the BIP. This includes optional on-site services related to mental health, parenting, and employment. By addressing these intersecting needs, the Gateway program aims to reduce IPV.

“We have to find more effective ways of addressing abusive partners and engaging them in a change process,” says Nitsch. “We are invested in this project because it is essential to our mission ‘to lead the fight to end intimate partner violence.’”

When Murphy heard about the Gateway Program’s new supportive services model, he offered to develop an assessment to evaluate its effectiveness. “A lot of the field has focused on holding offenders accountable for their behavior, but not necessarily what will make them less likely to engage in abuse or violence,” explains Murphy. 

A team approach to IPV research

Murphy brought together a team from across disciplines and institutions to help design a holistic assessment. The team includes Tara Richards, co-principal investigator, assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, Omaha; Charvonne Holliday, assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Nitsch, who is also a board member of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

The program evaluation is a three-part process. Murphy and his team will first assess if there is a decrease in IPV incidents among offenders in the Gateway Program after they’ve participated solely in the Batterer Intervention Program. Second, they will examine if there is also a decrease among clients who choose to access additional support services. Third, they will assess the challenges and values that clients express, and if how they receive services fits their expectations and needs. 

“We have been working with the Gateway Program for over a year to collaboratively develop the assessments needed to determine who will benefit the most from certain services,” says Murphy. 

Richards explains that to identify clients’ needs the team assesses factors such as substance abuse, low educational attainment, and antisocial behavior, which are correlated with criminal behaviors among other types of offenders. She explains her role as evaluating how integrating knowledge of those factors and of abusive behaviors “with a culturally sensitive curriculum to help develop individualized services” can reduce recidivism. She explains, “We can’t separate these issues and expect to get the best outcomes.”

In addition to this research, Murphy also offers training on motivational communication strategies for service providers, to increase the likelihood that their clients will utilize the available services. 

The results will be used to improve the delivery of Gateway Program services. They will also inform other programs nationwide, and inform training materials for service providers in other agencies.

“Those of us who work in this field know intimate partner violence tends to carry on through generations,” says Murphy. “If we can stop someone now from being abusive who is in their twenties and has young children, it can benefit everyone else in their family and system.” 

Community-based participatory research with survivors of gender-based violence

Nkiru Nnawulezi, assistant professor of psychology, has received the Linda Saltzman New Investigator Award for her work with communities to support survivors of gender-based violence. The award is funded by the Center for Disease Control Foundation, Futures Without Violence, and RALIANCE. It honors her ongoing research and will be formally announced at the 2020 National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in late April.

Nnawulezi. Photo courtesy of Nnawulezi.

“The award is such an honor because it isn’t just my work, but also the communities I work with. It’s about the people who I have a privilege to know and be surrounded by,” says Nnawulezi. “It is a community honor.”

The accolade acknowledges her work using transformative Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) to evaluate the systems and institutions that serve survivors of gender-based violence. Her work in this field spans from her dissertation, through her time as a UMBC Postdoctoral Fellow for Faculty Diversity, to her current scholarship as an assistant professor of community psychology. 

Nnawulezi explains that transformative CBPR focuses on shifting the status quo from institutionally-focused research to community-driven research where the community acts on its power and determines what knowledge is generated and how it is used.

She works with survivors to research structures and policies related to domestic violence housing programs. When it comes to her specific focus in that area, she explains, “As a community, the survivors and practitioners decide what they want to research. It may be understanding what it takes for survivors to experience power, whether the organizational policies and culture create a loss of power, or if they support survivors having and using power.”

A focus on intersectional identities

Nnawulezi specializes in working with survivors with intersectional identities and community-based practitioners, exploring how survivors navigate institutions intended to support them. This includes survivors who are people of color, living with HIV, queer and trans, low-income, homeless or housing insecure, experiencing addiction, or experiencing severe mental illnesses. 

She finds transformative CBPR to be particularly suited to working with survivors with histories of multiple marginalizations because it questions why and how researchers can support communities facing multiple forms of oppression. This approach dismantles the traditional views of psychologists as altruistic professionals saving people in need, she explains. Instead, it moves toward supporting the liberation of historically marginalized communities by challenging systems of oppression and creating social change with community members.

“The purpose of my work can be summed up by this quote from Lilla Watson, an aboriginal elder, activist and educator,” shares Nnawulezi. “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Banner image: Murphy. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.