Her husband hurt her all too often, and the constant fear was as debilitating as the violence. But that night, the attack was especially vicious. Worried for her children’s safety, she fought back.
“When the police arrived, they found her looking wild and frantic, with bruises that wouldn’t show up until later,” says Stacey Sullivan, a social worker in Raleigh, North Carolina. “But her husband was injured, too.”
Since the officers didn’t know which one was the primary perpetrator, they arrested them both.
Filling a Service Gap
That scenario, Sullivan says, isn’t unusual.
Since 2007, she has led a support program in Wake County for women who have been charged with domestic violence and ordered by a court or child protective services to get help. Called MOVE – an acronym for Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment – the effort helps them rebuild self-esteem and strengthen positive parenting skills.
MOVE began as a program of SAFEchild, a Raleigh nonprofit focused on child safety and abuse prevention, and InterAct, a nonprofit that provides safety and support to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Staff at both agencies realized that mothers arrested for fighting back have complex needs that aren’t addressed through traditional services.
Multi-year grants from The Duke Endowment and the North Carolina Governor's Crime Commission helped launch MOVE and are funding an evaluation by researchers at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work.
The basic idea is to break the cycle of violence and begin the process of healing.
“A lot of women think they’re being told they’re bad mothers when the court sends them to this program,” says Sullivan, who works at SAFEchild. “We want to give them the tools to overcome their challenging family circumstances and minimize the impact of domestic violence on their children.”
MOVE offers five, 13-week sessions each year. SAFEchild coordinates and facilitates the parent groups; InterAct works with the children’s groups. The program is based on a model successfully piloted by the Chadwick Center for Children and Families in San Diego, but the curriculum has been restructured.
For the children, the MOVE curriculum covers family dynamics, communicating feelings, anger management and self-advocacy.
“Even if children aren’t direct victims of violence, it can impact them emotionally, academically and socially,” says Kathryn Johnson, associate executive director of InterAct. “And a lot of times, children take on responsibility for the abuse. We try to help them understand what domestic violence is, what the cycle of violence looks like, how to keep safe if they find themselves in a threatening situation and, most of all, that the abuse is not their fault.”
Sessions are held at night in a safe, supportive environment, and they include dinner. Special touches for the moms – pretty plates and napkins, for example, or festive gift baskets – make the evenings special. Mother’s Day is celebrated each session, not just in May, with cake and a banner.
Sullivan, who has worked with vulnerable populations for 18 years, helps the women gain confidence as a parent. She teaches coping and problem-solving techniques, and works with them to repair their fragile self-esteem.
She speaks with a voice of experience. “I know how an emotionally abusive relationship affected my own life,” she says. “My biggest goal is to help them rebuild who they are, to feel nurtured and to let them know they aren’t alone.”
Less Stress, Improved Parenting
So far, results have been promising.
Led by Rebecca Macy, the UNC Chapel Hill research team has found that MOVE mothers report an increased ability to protect their children from abuse and violence. They have reduced symptoms of depression, stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They report stronger coping skills, and less victimization. Their attitudes about parenting have improved.
Macy’s team has been involved since the beginning, establishing a protocol for implementing and evaluating MOVE in a community setting, and collecting data about early results.
“Overall in domestic violence services, we have very few evidence-based practices,” she says. “We deliver these services day in and day out, spending millions of dollars, but we don’t really know that they make a difference. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of good programs out there, but we just don’t have the data about whether they work.”
The long-term goal for the MOVE evaluation is to design a more rigorous test, and then develop the program as an evidence-based practice that could be replicated elsewhere.
“These are marginalized women who are not only victims of domestic violence, but they’re dealing with criminal charges, court mandates and child protective services,” Macy says. “We want to make sure we’re delivering a program that truly makes a difference in their lives and in the lives of their children.”
Phillip H. Redmond Jr.
Director of Child Care