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Updated 10:00 AM March 14, 2005




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Studies: Welfare workers should ask about domestic abuse

Two new U-M studies measuring the importance of training welfare workers about domestic violence have found that if abuse goes undetected, the risks to battered women and their children can increase.

Among the studies' findings are: more than two-thirds of battered women said that they discussed their abuse with a welfare worker, but most of them had to bring up the topic themselves; women who didn't talk about their abuse said it mainly was because the worker did not ask; and talking about abuse was difficult and could yield negative consequences.

"It's important that caseworkers not only detect the abuse, but respond with the right kinds of help," says Daniel Saunders, professor of social work and lead author of the studies.

One of the studies appeared in the February issue of the journal Violence Against Women and gives reports of welfare workers' behavior. A second study of welfare workers' reports of their own behavior and behavioral tendencies will appear in the journal Families in Society. In that study, surveys were sent to 932 trained and untrained managers and workers in the same 15 Michigan counties where the surveyed women lived. Both studies report on the impact of a one-day training on domestic violence.

The researchers learned from abused women that their welfare workers asked most often about physical harm, feelings of fear and police involvement. Saunders says the workplace is a potentially dangerous place for woman with a violent partner.

Researchers discovered that welfare workers did not give many women information about work exemptions that are available to abused women or assist with developing safety plans.

The tendency of workers to refer for couples counseling raised a concern that battered women could be endangered further, according to the studies.

Fewer than 10 percent of women, however, said they actually were referred for couples counseling.

Workers who offered a waiver from work requirements were more likely to uncover incidents of domestic violence and refer clients to a legal advocate.

The effects of the one-day training on domestic violence were mixed.

In response to the training case vignettes, workers said there was a high probability they would ask about abuse, the women's level of fear and the level of control she experiences in her life.

Trained workers were more likely than untrained workers to discuss women's fears and physical harm and were more likely to help them develop a safety plan.

The researchers speculate that the impact of training could be increased if the training was longer and if specific questions for detecting abuse were required. Comments from women about helpful and unhelpful worker responses, appearing in the abused women report article, can be used to train workers in the future.

In addition to Saunders, the studies were conducted by School of Social Work assistant professor Mark Holter, professor and associate dean Richard Tolman, and graduate students Lisa Pahl and Colleen Kenna.

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