A unique academic unit combats domestic violence

Chris Blodgett relates a story told him by a colleague. She was shopping one day, when she observed a father growing progressively frustrated with his nine- or 10-year-old daughter. Finally, he snapped, grabbed her by her ponytail, and lifted her clear off the ground.

“That’s an assault on a child,” says Blodgett.

But what did his friend do? What did e eight other adults who observed the incident do? Nothing.

“Because,” says Blodgett, “we have no social contract with each other about what we do when we see this.”

A clinical psychologist by training, Blodgett directs Washington State University’s Child and Family Research Unit (CAFRU) in Spokane. And he probably would have done something. After all, that’s his job.

Blodgett and his colleagues at CAFRU have embarked upon a crusade to expose and treat, through a blend of academic research, policy, and practice, the family violence that many of us consider a regrettable but private matter, rather than  a public-health issue.

Legally defined, domestic violence entails physical assault, battery, property damage, kidnapping, and unlawful imprisonment. The problem with the legal definition is that it requires the violence to occur in order for anything to be done about it.

Blodgett prefers discussing “intimate-partner violence,” a broader concept that includes warning signs of impending assault, such as the controlling of a partner’s behavior, isolation or withdrawal , and intense jealousy. Intimate-partner violence has physical violence at its core, Blodgett says. But the larger pattern of behavior is one of emotional and psychological abuse, and includes depriving the partner of her rights and freedoms.

While this more inclusive definition of domestic violence precludes direct intervention, it does provide a basis for discussion, says Blodgett. Questioning whether one’s behavior is going to be damaging, for example, opens the door to self-examination. And looking at the definition as a public health model provides a means to influence behavior early in the progression toward violence.

Research in Spokane by CAFRU confirms what other studies have established-that one out of every five women has suffered domestic violence. But under the broadened definition, the incidence of violence against women increases from 20 percent to 43 percent. “If we were talking about this as a physical health problem,” says Blodgett, “. . . if we said four out of 10 women will have diabetes, we’d be talking a major epidemic.”

Compared to the incidence of domestic violence in other communities across the country, Spokane seems to fall somewhere in the middle. The city counts nearly 10,000 adults as victims of domestic violence every year-a very conservative estimate, Blodgett insists. Although domestic violence happens within all social strata, incomes, and ages, says Blodgett,  the incidence is disproportionately higher among the poor. According to Blodgett’s research, the odds of requiring medical care as a result of domestic violence are nine times greater in a family making less than $25,000 a year than it is for one making more than $75,000.

This is a particularly significant statistic for Spokane County, where one quarter of the children live in poverty and 12 percent of the population as a whole lives below the federal poverty level.

“That’s not your first impression of Spokane,” says Blodgett.

Understanding a problem and doing something about it are two different things, of course. That’s what makes CAFRU unique among academic entities.

“Much of what I do is try to keep pace with where the literature is,” says Blodgett. He and CAFRU then look for money to fund partnerships with other local agencies to deal with families affected by violence. They have channeled about $7 million into Spokane in the past five years.

The unit currently is working with three federal multi-year grants. One, from the Department of Justice, is directed toward situations in which children have been exposed to violence. Research shows that following a violent incident there is only a short window of opportunity available to offset the effects of the incident on a young mind. If a child has witnessed a violent incident, police will call in an individual trained by CAFRU to help the child reduce the trauma. This may involve drawing or playing with dolls to reenact the situation, or simply talking through what happened. The theory, says Blodgett, is that such activity gives the child distance and perspective.

CAFRU has trained about 3,000 such professionals in the Spokane area.

Under a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, CAFRU also addresses violence in the workplace, such as harassment or stalking. “What we’re finding in our survey,” says Blodgett, “is that 60 percent of respondents say they know of a violent work event that affected one of their coworkers.”

Ten percent of women say it’s happened to them. One percent say they’ve had to have medical treatment because of violence that occurred in workplace.

Add to this the nearly $9 million in annual health-care costs related to domestic violence in Spokane alone, and the more than two million emergency-room visits that occur each year across the nation because of domestic violence, and the nature of domestic violence as a public-health problem becomes clear.

In other words, says Blodgett, “If we start with dollar value, this is not a bleeding heart issue.”