Uncovering the myths and truths of domestic violence

October 23, 2008

Communications research leads to significant program advancement for an Allegheny County crisis resource center

“Bad things happen to other people, not to me.” It’s a widespread belief among most people — perhaps making individuals even more vulnerable to violent crime. The fact is, bad things can happen to anyone. 

“The misperception that someone is less likely to be victimized — a theory called optimistic bias — is a major hurdle in getting people to acknowledge they may be at risk,” said John Chapin, associate professor of communications at Penn State Beaver and a health communications and health-risk perception expert.

For nearly a decade, Chapin has incorporated his study of optimistic bias and other communications theories into his work with Crisis Center North (CCN) — a nonprofit counseling and educational resource center for victims of domestic violence in Allegheny County — to help the center refine its violence-prevention education programs. His evaluation of CCN’s services has led to significant program advancement and has been essential in helping CCN prove program efficacy to secure funding.

“We have been able to stand out among other agencies in our community as one in a few who actually have this level of research done on the services we provide,” said Stacy de las Alas, development specialist for CCN.
To inform improvements to CCN’s school violence-prevention program, Chapin and his CCN colleagues evaluated middle- and high-school students’ reactions to CCN educational sessions designed to increase awareness of high-risk scenarios. As a result of Chapin’ s finding that students already knew a significant amount about violence in general, CCN refined its curriculum to include more specific sessions on such topics as relationship violence and violence in the media.

Chapin’s research has been integral to CCN’s medical-advocacy program, which provides round-the-clock intervention for domestic-violence victims who arrive at hospitals, as well as training for medical professionals to learn how to effectively screen patients. For example, his findings have helped enhance screeners’ awareness that accidents are the most common false answers provided by victims and that patients will be more candid when separated from their spouses and other family members. Chapin also found that some hospital employees believed domestic violence was more likely to occur among the economically disadvantaged and minorities — myths that CCN staff addressed in subsequent trainings.

Awareness through the arts
In addition to conducting programmatic evaluation, Chapin — whose work has garnered awards and state legislative citations — was an editor for the book “In the Fig Tree,” a collection of creative writing by survivors of domestic violence who sought help through CCN.

A fellow Penn State Beaver faculty member — Carol Schafer, associate professor of theatre, integrative arts and women’s studies and a former member of CCN’s board of directors — also has also used the arts to increase awareness of domestic violence. With Grace Coleman, executive dire ctor of CCN, Schafer penned “The Other Side of the River,” a fictionalized play based on almost two years of interviews with survivors of assault in the Pittsburgh area.

Funded through Verizon Wireless and a Penn State Research Development Grant, the play was performed at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum in September 2003 and at the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s annual Pathways for Victim Services Conference in 2004. A video production of the play, produced by the University’s WPSU, also was funded by Verizon.

The 10th annual Pathways conference, offered in conjunction with Penn State Conferences, an Outreach unit, will be held Nov. 19-21 at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel.

Both Chapin and Schafer have incorporated their commitment to violence-prevention education into their classrooms at Penn State Beaver — Schafer in her women’s studies and theatre classes, and Chapin through service-learning and independent-study projects for his students. This fall Chapin’s students are filming sessions of a state-mandated training for individuals who work with victims of violent crime.

“I found the perfect way to blend my teaching and research with community service,” said Chapin.

This story is from the fall issue of Penn State Outreach magazine. Go to www.outreach.psu.edu/news/magazine/CurrentIssue/ to view the magazine online.


  • John Chapin's research has informed training for medical professionals.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010