Each year more than 1 million children in the United States are brought to shelters to escape family violence. Each of their families reports, on average, more than 60 acts of aggression at home during the past year, ranging from pushes and shoves to hits and kicks. More than half of the families report an incident involving a knife or gun.
“Research that studies children who witness violence in the home is fundamental to helping them,” says Paige Flink, executive director of The Family Place in Dallas. The Family Research Center, a new program of SMU’s Psychology Department in Dedman College, works with shelters such as The Family Place to address the mental health problems of children facing domestic violence.
Family violence affects children’s physical health as well, says Candyce Tart, a second-year Ph.D. student in SMU’s clinical psychology program. Tart’s years of experience in pediatric nursing, mostly in inner-city school environments, sparked an interest in the psychology of her patients’ families.
“Many of these children’s illnesses were made worse by stress at home,” she says. “All sorts of psychological factors in their lives seemed to impact their lives more than physical health.”
Tart studies conduct-disordered children from dysfunctional or abusive families through the Family Research Center as part of her dissertation on biological and physiological underpinnings of behavioral problems.
“I’d like to know why some children come out of these violent households with more behavior or emotional problems, and others more resilient,” she says.
SMU’s faculty, especially its revitalized clinical psychology program under Psychology Department Chair Ernest Jouriles, had a lot to do with Tart’s decision to attend the University, she says.
“Ernest Jouriles is developing a fantastic research program with the facilities and support for doing research,” says Tart. “We have so much equipment available, as well as access into shelters and other community and clinical locations. And it’s a very collaborative environment. Not all schools have that.”