Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Standing in a room with 20 men convicted of domestic violence is a choice not many women would make. Halley Woodward is different.

A second-year graduate student in clinical psychology, Woodward is working with the Iowa Department of Corrections and her UI lab to restructure the state's batterer education program. Known as the BEP Project, the goal is to reduce relapses amongst convicted domestic abusers. Woodward, a Graduate College Presidential Fellow, is devoted to this project because of the social implications and importance to a wide population. Although working in domestic violence can be difficult, helping convicted abusers positively turn their lives around is tremendously rewarding.

"It's empowering and very meaningful to reach out and try to evoke change in men who have been in trouble for abusing women," Woodward said. Woodward said the current curriculum is less effective than it could be, in part because it focuses on only one to two reasons abusers abuse. Also, most individuals attending the program aren't motivated to change, which can cause them to be unresponsive to the sessions.

The new approach Woodward and fellow researchers are developing aims to increase the perpetrators' motivation to listen attentively. To do so, it will focus more on what the abusers want by getting them to reflect on values, and what's working or not working in their lives. "We want them to consider what they value and encourage them to be mindful of those values at all times," Woodward said. "In high-pressure situations, they can ask themselves whether their choices are helping them move toward or away from their values."

Draft plans for the training are almost complete, and a pilot program will soon be launched across the state. Woodward is excited for the possibilities the program presents. If successful, it will be the first evidence-based program of its kind in the country. In addition to her work on the BEP Project, Woodward is beginning to research the effects of stress and mental health concerns on relationships. She said research indicates that depression is linked to marital distress and vice versa, but we don't know exactly how depression affects a relationship.

Woodward is analyzing data from a recent survey on intimate partners in college. The study consisted of relationship questionnaires and interviews filled out five times in four years by the same students. Erika Lawrence, associate professor of psychology, is Woodward's mentor. She praised Woodward's work ethic and said she foresees a bright future for her student. "Working on a state-of-the art research project like the BEP Project while completing all of her other academic obligations is impressive, and she is extremely passionate about her work," Lawrence said. "It is a real joy as a mentor to work with a student like that. She is on track to become a leader in the field."