Dr. Rebecca Macy. Image courtesy of UNC’s School for Social Work

CHAPEL HILL – Domestic abuse is rarely something we talk about in society, but at UNC’s School for Social Work, a study into counseling for survivors and victims of abuse shows promising results.

L. Richardson Preyer Distinguished Chair for Strengthening Families at the School for Social Work, Rebecca Macy, studied a new program called Mothers Overcoming Violence through Education and Empowerment, or MOVE, for 70 women who fought back against their abusers.

Macy says that a program like MOVE was developed because of the women who fought back and were in mandated treatment needed their own type of session.

“The social workers there said, ‘Gosh, these women don’t fit into our voluntary model programs, but they’re not perpetrators so they don’t go into those programs. We need to have a new program for these women,’” Macy says.

At the end of the 13 week program, researchers found that women in the program were 96.5 percent less likely to experience any kind of future physical abuse. There was also an 84 percent reduction in the chance that the women would experience any future psychological abuse.

MOVE used exercises to build self-confidence and self-esteem in the women in the program. MOVE coordinator Stacy Sullivan gives an example of “affirmation sheets” for the women enrolled in the program.

“There is a page for each woman with their name on it and all of the other group members write positive messages to each mom on the page,” Sullivan says. “Then, the facilitators write something positive to the mom as well.”

Macy says over time, domestic violence gets rid of one’s self-confidence and can lead to someone not seeing a way out of the abusive relationship.

“The women I’ve worked with as a social worker and who have been in my research study, they can be really competent, amazing, talented women, but after years in a relationship like that, they don’t see themselves accurately anymore,” Macy says. “Really, they begin to question their own judgment.”

Macy highlights this point with a story of one woman who was abused by her then-husband.

“Her ex-husband used to beat her head against the floor and he said, ‘it wouldn’t be that bad if you just held your head straight.’ She kind of believed that,” Macy says. “Sometimes women end up thinking that they deserve what’s happening to them when that’s not the case, or that if they were better mothers or better wives or better girlfriends, this wouldn’t happen to them.”

MOVE also included training and workshops for women on parenting in the context of an abusive relationship. Data from Macy’s study shows that three months after the program ended, only 19 percent of the women enrolled stayed with their abusive partner, down from 43 percent at the beginning.

However, even if many of the women did not stay in the relationship, Macy says that being able to effectively parent with their former partner is important.

“Even though the romantic or spousal relationship may have ended, a lot of times, these women still have to co-parent with these partners because they have children in common,” Macy says. “There might be visitation that has to be arranged and child custody.”

At the conclusion of the study, Macy also found that the women were 93.6 percent less likely to respond to abuse with physical violence. The children of the women in the MOVE program who were aged five to 13 also received group therapy for child abuse.

The privately-owned Duke Endowment funded the $600,000 study and is giving a $250,000 grant for further research in this area.