Stith researches complex issues of domestic violence
Monday, March 22, 2010
Effectively treating violence among couples should encompass more than treating men separately for power and control issues, according Sandra Stith, a professor of family studies and human services.
An expert in intimate partner violence, she said research supports treating substance abuse as a means to stopping violence in some situations, while also considering that women can be violent themselves and that some couples choose to stay together regardless of violence in the relationship.
Some state standards based on myth, not research
Stith expressed concern about some state standards for domestic violence treatment.
"Some standard requirements use particular models that have no evidence of efficacy at all," Stith said. "State treatment requirements are not always based on research but often on ideology and beliefs."
She's finding that standards often operate on myths, such as that only men are offenders. Stith said that because men are more likely to be arrested for violence against a partner, most treatment programs target them.
"In most of our research we find that although women are more likely to be injured by intimate partner violence, both men and women are often violent," Stith said. "A lot of communities are just putting female offenders in victim services."
Less research on violent women
Although research indicates that many women who are victims are also violent themselves, Stith said there's been less research on understanding the risk factors and treatment for violent women.
"If the victim services don't address the woman's use of violence, then the women are not going to be served as well," she said.
In 2009, Stith and Catherine McMonigle, a former student of Stith's from Virginia Tech, published a study in "Preventing Partner Violence: Foundations, Interventions and Issues," published by the American Psychological Association, on risk factors for intimate partner violence.
Domestic violence not just a matter of power
"As a clinician, I do this research because traditional treatment for offenders only focuses on power and control and really doesn't look at domestic violence as having multiple causes," she said. "If you treat everybody who comes in as having a problem with power and control, you're missing the boat."
Stith said this is because offenders also struggle with issues like substance abuse, depression, personality disorders and anger issues. She said some research has shown that by treating substance abuse, violence decreases for some offenders.
"We really need to do better screening and target treatments to the known risk factors," she said.
Reality: some violent couples stay together
In 2008, she and Virginia Tech's Eric McCollum published a study in the journal Violence and Victims that showed how treating carefully screened violent couples together can be an effective part of a community's larger response, which also includes victim services, offender treatment, law enforcement and the judicial system.
"Sometimes our society's perspective is that all violent couples should separate," Stith said. "But sometimes the reality is that people don't. They're living together and making decisions together. People think they're doing the couple a favor by saying they won't work with them because there's been violence and they're choosing to stay together. But we try to work with them to develop skills to end the violence rather than assuming they'll separate."
Stith leads a program at K-State for high-conflict couples.
"We do know there are skills you can learn, and we have evidence of the positive effect of the work we've done to help couples who want to learn new skills to deal with conflict," Stith said.
Couples can learn to deal with conflict
Stith helps couples improve the way they deal with conflict by teaching them how to take a time out and how to calm themselves down. She also helps them improve their relationships.
"We do a lot of talking about ways you can hear what somebody you care about says and try to understand what's going on for them instead of taking it personally," she said. "The more personally you take it, the more you're going to want to be violent or hurtful."
Stith does the work with advanced graduate student therapists at K-State's Family Center. They prefer to work with couples in groups of six, although they also work with one couple at a time. All participants are screened before joining the Couples Conflict program. For more information about the group, contact The Family Center or Stith at 785-532-6984, or contact Stith at firstname.lastname@example.org.