Class Act

Four psychology graduate students from Nova Southeastern University (NSU) hope their efforts to update a controversial measure from the late 1970s will provide clinicians and researchers with a valid and reliable measure to assess victims of domestic violence.

Four years after beginning their work, the team-Kate Richmond, Kristin David, Julie Johnson and Amber Lyda-has made strides in revamping the Battered Woman Syndrome Questionnaire (BWSQ). In fact, they are now assessing its ability to collect reliable and valid data cross-culturally by interviewing battered women in the United States, Spain and Russia.

The students interview the women about how they left their partners and their struggles with overcoming isolation, fear and violence, such as death threats from their partner. The BWSQ assesses such characteristics as the psychological impact of battering, the cycle of violence, the role of gender ideology and the effects of betrayal.

"Every battered woman has such tremendous strength and resiliency," says Richmond, a fourth-year NSU clinical psychology student who traveled to Madrid, Spain, in 2003 to interview battered women as part of the research. "The theories and interventions related to battered women in psychology classes never truly capture the experience of sitting with a woman as she recounts and works through her abuse. This makes the textbook come to life."

Lyda also traveled overseas to Sablano, Russia, interviewing incarcerated women who had been battered by their partners-some of whom were imprisoned for killing their abusers.


BATTERED WOMAN SYNDROME

The team's research to update and validate the BWSQ stems from the theory pioneered by their psychology professor Lenore Walker, EdD-the battered woman syndrome, which describes the cycles of violence and entrapment among women in abusive relationships.

Walker proposed that battered women develop learned helplessness and use various coping strategies to deal with the abuse, which often leads to a cycle in which violence and psychological manipulation tend to grow more intense, vicious and frequent. Richmond came to NSU specifically with the hope of working with Walker one day and straight away approached Walker about contributing to her research.

To Walker, Richmond came at the perfect time too: Walker had been facing criticism within the field about the lack of empirical research to validate her theory on battered woman syndrome, and she wanted to conduct research to show such a syndrome existed.

Walker and Richmond recruited three other psychology doctoral students to form the research team.

Some day, they hope research using the revamped survey will help answer such questions as whether a syndrome-based focus further pathologized women, how violence occurs in a cycle and if a theory of learned helplessness can aid clinicians in understanding the aftermath of abuse.


IMPROVING ASSESSMENT

One of the team's chief objectives was to make the BWSQ more useful to psychologists. The original BWSQ was about 150 pages and took seven to nine hours to administer.

"In today's world of health care, it's almost impossible to give an assessment that long," Richmond says.

So the team gathered information from an extensive literature review that reflects changes in the past 20 years in theories, treatments and policies on domestic violence. The revised questionnaire takes into account new developments such as:

  • Legal remedies and restraining orders are easier to access today.
  • Many health-care personnel now undergo domestic-violence training.
  • Government, community institutions and agencies have attempted to remove barriers for women who seek help.
  • The diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, which includes many symptoms observed in battered women, has been included in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The revamped questionnaire is 33 pages and takes an hour-and-a-half to three hours to administer.

Now, the team is validating the measure by interviewing battered women-so far, nearly 50 women at a battered women's shelter in Florida, 26 battered women in Spain and 19 incarcerated, battered women in Russia. The team hopes to discover if psychological factors related to domestic abuse correlate across cultures.

Through interviews with women from Spain and Russia, the students' preliminary results have shown these battered women report high levels of loneliness, flashbacks of the violence and physical signs on their bodies reminding them of the abuse. Spanish women, in particular, were more likely to report higher levels of abuse-such as incidences of being pushed, shoved or grabbed by their partner-compared with women from the United States and Russia, according to preliminary findings.

Richmond helped gather the data during a month-long trip to Spain in 2003. She teamed up with Spanish psychologist Patricia Villavicencio, PhD-an NSU visiting scholar in 2003-to interview women at battered women shelters in Barcelona and Madrid.

During a trip to Lima, Peru, Richmond and Villavicencio also presented information on the updated BWSQ at the 29th Inter-American Congress of Psychology in July 2003. At the conference, they also met with policy-makers from a Peruvian domestic-abuse research and advocacy agency to help guide their interventions and research on domestic violence and train the employees about the battered woman syndrome.


SPREADING THE MESSAGE

As the team's research grows, so has the number of researchers. About 20 students are now involved in the project, doing interviews, statistical analysis or data entry. With their validation work still in its preliminary stages, bringing more researchers on board will help the project continue once the original team graduates, David says.

Walker says the students' work has been instrumental in furthering her work on battered woman syndrome.

"They've been invaluable to me in putting the time and energy into both the conceptualization and operationalization of it," Walker says. "I know they will have a fabulous career in psychology, and it's so exciting to watch them grow and take their place as psychologists."

But the team's work doesn't stop there. They also provide educational workshops to psychologists on battered women and using the BWSQ to conduct assessments.

Raising awareness of the plight of battered women is important to the team.

"If it is happening to one woman, it is happening to all of us," David says. "This is a really strong epidemic that I feel has been pushed under the rug. I think there needs to be more research and more attention paid to it."

Eventually, they hope that psychologists around the world will use the updated BWSQ to assess and treat battered women and that their cross-cultural work will pave the way to build collaborations with other countries on domestic-violence assessment and prevention.

David says she is amazed at how their work-starting with just four students-has stretched internationally, including interviews with battered women and presentations at conferences around the world, such as in Singapore, Peru and Toronto.

"This research has grown so quickly," she says. "I never imagined that it would grow so powerful."