The following is from the Jan. 11, 2007, edition of The Dallas Morning News.

After shelter, vital support

SMU center helps families escaping domestic violence

Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

SMU Professors Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald of The Family Research Center provide vital support to victims of domestic violence.

When an abused woman and her children end up in a women's shelter, they find a haven from violence. But after leaving the shelter, many women struggle to rebuild their lives without support. Their young children can suffer from the effects of witnessing violence, often leading to emotional problems or even future criminal activity.

Now a pilot program is trying to determine the most effective way to change that cycle.

The Family Research Center of the department of psychology at Southern Methodist University is undertaking Project SUPPORT, which provides women who have left shelters with weekly or monthly follow-up visits in their homes from a therapist and a mentor for up to six months.

The therapist will work with the mother while the mentor works with her children up to age 6. Ten women have joined the free, voluntary program, and eight more are committed to join as soon as they leave the shelter.

Dr. Renee McDonald, co-director of the Family Research Center and assistant professor of psychology at SMU, hopes the program will make people more aware that children aren't getting help after they leave shelters. "Many kids in violent or abusive homes have been emotionally traumatized," she said. "Research shows that kids who have been exposed to violence tend to have problems ranging from conduct problems to substance abuse and criminal justice involvement later on."

The mission of the newly opened center, located near campus in the Expressway Tower, is "to advance and disseminate scientific knowledge on family functioning."

In addition to Project SUPPORT, the Family Research Center is studying the effects of domestic violence on young children and testing a computer virtual reality program that teaches teens to avoid risky situations that can lead to date violence or date rape.

Project SUPPORT is one of 15 programs nationwide to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice "Safe Start" initiative, according to the department.

The National Center for Children Exposed to Violence estimates that as many as 10 million children per year may witness or be victims of violence at home.

Working with The Family Place and Genesis Women's Shelter, Project SUPPORT began offering the program to families in the early fall.

"Our partnership with SMU is helping us stretch our resources. It's a great help to us," said Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place, an emergency shelter in Dallas. "We don't have the ability to follow families when they leave the shelter. I expect it will be very valuable to continue support in the home, to offer a woman with young children someone she can lean on and who can help her think though things."

Project SUPPORT focuses on practical and psychological help. Therapists help women figure out how to solve their immediate crises after leaving the shelter, like how to pay for a bus pass or a telephone line with only a few dollars.

"We try to help them get into a place where they will have perspective and can make longer-term decisions," said Dr. McDonald, who worked with a smaller-version of this program in Houston.

"It's not always a happy ending," she added. "But sometimes the success cases are so successful, it kind of feels like a little miracle."

The problem of family violence is chronic. According to The Family Place Web site, in 2004 the shelter provided food, short-term housing, counseling and other services to 1,000 women and children. In the same year, the Family Violence unit of the Dallas Police Department reported 15,496 family violence offenses, and The Family Place received more than 20,000 hotline and referral calls.

Susan McAllister is a freelance writer in Dallas.

# # #