Robert Bobo

October 13, 2006

Victims of Family Violence Gain 'Support' from SMU

DALLAS (SMU) – More than 15 million U.S. children have witnessed some form of violence between cohabitating adults in their homes. A new program at Southern Methodist University’s Family Research Center will work with Dallas women’s shelters to address the mental health problems of children facing this kind of violence.

The new Family Research Center will officially open at a ceremony at 10 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 13, at Expressway Tower, 6116 N Central Expy, on the 11th floor.

“Even a cursory scan of news items demonstrates that violence in the home is a major issue for concern,” said Thomas W. Tunks, SMU provost ad interim.  “Professors Ernest Jouriles and Renee McDonald, and their colleagues, are not only doing research of high importance to our society, but are well equipped to do so.  We are very pleased to have the Family Research Center at SMU and to support this research dimension of our Psychology Department.”

Each year more than 1 million children in the United States are brought to shelters such as The Family Place in Dallas. The average sheltered family reports more than 60 acts of aggression, such as pushes, shoves, hits, or kicks, during the past year. More than half of the families report an incident involving a knife or gun.

“Research that studies children who witness violence in the home is fundamental to helping them,” said Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place. “We look forward to partnering with SMU on this important research project so that we can help more children.”

SMU’s Family Research Center recently launched Project SUPPORT, a home-based intervention program that offers intensive, targeted services for families after they leave the shelter. Project SUPPORT helps mothers start new lives apart from their abusers and teaches parenting skills critical for guiding children with serious behavior problems.

“Our research shows that children who have been through Project SUPPORT demonstrate significant decreases in clinical levels of behavior problems,” said Ernest Jouriles, professor and chair of SMU’s psychology department.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), part of the U.S. Department of Justice, has recognized Project SUPPORT as one of 15 “most promising practices” nationally in helping children exposed to violence. A four-year grant from the OJJDP as a part of its “Safe Start” Promising Approaches initiative will help Project SUPPORT to identify the causes of psychological adjustment problems of children exposed to domestic violence and conduct interventions to prevent and treat those problems. Funding for the first two years is nearly $420,000, and the final two years, awaiting approval, will be a similar amount.

For an hour a week for six months, the family receives joint visits from a service provider and mentor. The service provider works one-on-one with the mother while the mentor interacts with the children. Once the family has gained some stability, the intervention moves on to the second component – teaching mother-child management skills based on the strengths and weaknesses of mother and child. The service provider and mentor model these skills in their interactions with the children.

“The 24-month research follow-up shows that mothers who received the interventions were less likely to use aggressive forms of punishment than mothers in the comparison group,” said Renee McDonald, associate professor of psychology.

SMU students will be involved in many aspects of the program. Students will be research assistants, responsible for interviewing research participants, working in the field to identify and recruit families for research, and conducting laboratory assessments of families. They also will serve as mentors for families and attend family treatment sessions with health providers. Doctoral students will serve as therapists on treatment projects.