Social welfare dean committed to domestic violence’s youngest victims

Nearly 40 years after graduating from UC Berkeley, Jeffrey Edleson is back on campus as dean of the School of Social Welfare. For the last three decades, he has been at the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, where, among other things, he directed the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse. With October marking National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Edleson talks about his two main research areas: prevention and intervention for children exposed to domestic violence in the home, and new and expectant fathers who are at high risk for being violent with their partners and offspring.

Social welfare dean Jeffrey Edleson focuses on the impact of domestic violence on children

Q: A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control says one in four women in the U.S. has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. Why is your focus on children?

A: The study of domestic violence has been mostly focused on adults, and forgotten in the mix are the children.  One of the key predictors of later-life problems is early exposure to violence in the home, whether you’re a victim to it or observing it. Children exposed to domestic violence have a greater likelihood of using violence in their adult relationships and also of being victims of domestic violence. The majority of children exposed to domestic violence come out functioning pretty well as adults, but it does put them at greater risk for problems later on.

Q: Are there stereotypes about where domestic violence happens?

A: Sure, it’s not just in poor neighborhoods or households, and it’s not always the explicit stuff that you see out on the streets. Oftentimes, it’s hidden.

Q: How do children react to violence in their homes?

A: It’s hard to characterize all children who experience domestic violence; some children blame themselves for what’s happening, and others feel angry and just want to get away. A lot of children intervene and try to protect their moms and get injured, so there are a lot of concerns around children and their safety. Children exposed to violence in the home are more likely to use violence at school and in the community. Some studies have shown they have less empathy; it’s a way of protecting themselves. As adults, they find they hated the violence as kids, and now they’re doing it themselves, and there’s a lot of shame around their behavior.

Q: So how does one break this cycle?

A: One thing we know is that children and adults who experience domestic violence turn first to family and friends. The problem is, we’ve done very little to support those informal support networks, and that’s a huge avenue of potential, and something social welfare and social work could do better. We need to support these protective adults and peers in the children’s lives and give them the skills to respond and support them.

Q: How do we support the family and friends of victims?

A: I’m working with colleagues on creating a (web) portal that families and friends of victims of domestic violence can go to and get advice on how to approach children about domestic violence and how to talk to them about it.

Q: Your other focus is on new and expectant fathers. Why?

A: If you go back to the earliest point at which you can intervene and possibly prevent the cycle of domestic violence, it’s before children are actually born and just after children are actually born, at the ultrasound appointment, at parenting classes and the well-baby checkup. Fathers are rarely engaged in those opportunities, and they need to be. It helps them build empathy for their children. It’s important to me that men understand their role as parents and as partners in their relationships.

Q: What if a father is emotionally unavailable or unreachable?

A: It’s true, there are some fathers we may not want to engage, but there are fathers who still have relationships with their children, and we need to intervene with those dads to prevent them from being violent with their partners or toward their children.

Q: You’re a father of four boys, ages 23 to 28. Will you teach them to be good partners and fathers?

A: As a parent, you hope you have an influence on them, but at a certain point, their peers become very important, and media has a big impact. I’m one of many factors in their lives.

Q: What trends have you seen in your decades of following domestic violence in America?

A: I do think there’s more awareness and better responses when violence happens. But I don’t think it’s getting better in terms of lowering the number of incidents. We have so much more work to do in the schools, with new parents, and by supporting the families and friends of domestic violence victims. Also, for parents, the Internet is a major concern. Children have easy access to pornography, and video games contain many bad role models for intimate relationships. These influences are a major challenge for those of us working to end domestic violence.

Q: How can you help as the dean of the School of Social Welfare?

A: I came to UC Berkeley because it has a tradition of “scholar deans.” I expect to continue my work on children who are exposed to domestic violence. One of the great things about the School of Social Welfare is that we have faculty with expertise and great strength in the areas of child welfare, foster care, bullying and more.